This time last week I returned from a very welcome break to the Canaries to find a sport in the most peculiar time warp. Jim Best and the BHA were at loggerheads over the allegations around the former’s conduct, just as they both had been for seemingly years; Cue Card was winning a Grade-1 staying chase, just as he has been for seemingly years; and Brough Scott was looking forward to a career on terrestrial TV, just as had done so many years ago.
There is something mildly depressing but also largely reassuring about the rhythm and flow of the racing news flow. Scandal might sometimes darken our door but we can consider ourselves relatively blessed that our own sporting house appears to be in better order.
In the main, however, this is the time of year when pulsating Saturdays give way to celebratory lunches and the relentless thudding thump of excitement clicks up a gear as we move firstly towards the sensational jamboree that is Boxing Day before we dust ourselves and our wallets down in time for Cheltenham.
One man who has only relatively recently found himself thrust into the limelight of tier-1 trainers is the wonderful Colin Tizzard.
At Newbury, on Saturday, I was standing behind Tizzard as he was waiting to collect his owners and trainers badges for guests. He remonstrated — with good humour — with the girls on the desk to try to secure a couple of extra food vouchers and two more racecards that weren’t part of his allocation.
He smiled his way to success, of course. It gave a glimpse into the charm of this utterly straightforward farming man: he gets a little bit more out of his stock, cajoles a bit extra, gets results, keeps it simple, and goes home to his livestock when all around are getting excited.
He won the Hennessy, of course, courtesy of the uber-game Native River, barely an hour after his mighty Thistlecrack had turned his latest outing into yet another procession.
A bugbear I have at this time of year are small field sizes: I know I don’t command total support when I complain that the sight of four or five (or fewer!) horses barely constitutes a race.
Trainers like to educate their horses, especially novice chasers, but we, the audience, are drawn to it for the racing element rather than the schooling. We want battles. The quantum of the fixture list is only part of the problem, although the high-quality feature hurdle at Ascot last weekend has been decimated by a similar race at Haydock, which makes no sense whatsoever.
The BHA should re-examine the terms of the novice chase programme to reduce the proliferation of small field eyesores, at the risk of upsetting a few folk along the way.
Talk remains rife that Thistlecrack might take on stablemate Cue Card in this year’s King George.
The sport fan in me wants it to happen, and I have been a critic of keeping horses apart from each other until Cheltenham; but the Tizzard fan in me wishes them to take their time and stick to the Feltham where Thistlecrack’s undoubted class is more likely to be honed and oiled en route to the Gold Cup on 17 March.
I feel a bit of a coward for favouring the so-called easier route but at Newbury on Saturday it was evident that Thistlecrack remains a chasing work in progress, albeit a masterpiece. The gruelling guts of a King George might be a step too soon.
Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend the Peter O’Sullevan annual fundraising lunch. Almost 500 guests met at the Dorchester, not only to raise many thousands for O’Sullevan’s charitable foundation, but also to laugh at Rory Bremner’s priceless impressions of politicians, O’Sullevan and co.
Later that evening, a group of us were lamenting our inability to mimic the great Bremner when the absurdly talented Nick Luck gave a sketch featuring John Francome, Mick Fitzgerald, Martin Pipe, John Gosden and Anthony Oppenheimer.
It was every bit as brilliant as Bremner and, while clearly more parochial, had those of us who flit around the fringes of a wonderful sport in stitches. If you ever bump into Luck, ask him to give you a sample!
We head to Sandown and Aintree this coming weekend for the Tingle Creek and the Becher Chase, respectively.
It’s difficult to get a handle on the former as it’s been re-opened at the time of writing, but Gary Moore’s pair of former winner Sire De Grugy and the improving Ar Mad have to be on the shortlist.
My preference will be for the former, as he owes me absolutely nothing and might not have deteriorated as rapidly as some of last year’s form might suggest.
It will be difficult, of course, not to conjure memories of the late, great Moscow Flyer taking on Well Chief and Azertyuiop a decade or so ago in what was the most thrilling two-mile chase I’ve enjoyed outside of the Festival.
If Sire De Grugy can summon another great performance, he’ll be pulling on my heartstrings in much the same way that the Flyer did when I fell in love with this great game.