Racing Ahead

Robert cooper

Sky’s man finds a strange woman knocking on his hotel door!


Travel, for those who like venture abroad, has been sternly restricted during the pandemic but in these dog days of a summer nearly past, it appears that every man, woman and child who owns a caravan, trailer or tractor is at the wheel, crawling around Britain. Returning from a happy night at Chepstow a few weeks ago, I was staggered by the nose-to-tail traffic on the M5 motorway – where, I asked myself, is everyone going?

I must admit, I’m not a great traveller – a ‘staycation’ to me means remaining as near to Chipping Norton as possible, avoiding if you can, the army of pilgrims peeking through the hedges of Clarkson’s Farm, Amazon Prime’s latest blockbuste­r. I can view Jeremy’s acres from my bathroom window, and that’s close enough; I have yet to buy any ‘Diddly Squat’ fudge from the increasing­ly popular farm shop of the same name. Sometimes a hotel stay is inevitable, last month I was on Sky Sports Racing reporting duties at Doncaster with action the next day at Chester, so a room with a lakeside view in a Donny Travelodge was my overnight dwelling. Settling down to a post race cuppa in my sparsely furnished cell, I heard a gentle knock on the door accompanie­d by a female voice boldly declaring, “Bobby Coooooooop­er, I know you’re there, hellooo!” I thought this strange, mildly alarming and intriguing all in the same heartbeat. Apart from Mrs Cooper and Teabag the Terrier, my whereabout­s was unknown. And, even in my dreams, I have not faced a similar dilemma. There and then, I had to decide whether to open the door or remain mouse like. Could I be robbed or kidnapped, or was this room service with a difference?

After further knocks and pleadings, I opened the door a crack to detect a young lady, dressed as if for a wedding, accompanie­d by a burly, also well-attired, young man. They had been to the races and, unspotted by me, we had passed each other in the hotel corridor a half an hour earlier. “Oh, it is you, I thought it was, my dad is your biggest fan,” declared mystery woman, “he won’t believe we’re staying in the same hotel.” There followed an amiable chat accompanie­d by a combinatio­n of smiling corridor selfies. I thus returned to my anonymity, strangely elated and feeling at least five years younger – more often than not it’s grandpa who’s the fan.

On my arrival at Chester next day, I was saddened to learn of the death of Tony Fairbairn. Tony was a true racing pioneer; back in 1968 he created the Racegoers Club (still going strong) allowing discounts to the races, stable visits and setting up syndicates providing racehorse ownership for an affordable outlay. Fairbairn’s blueprint has triumphed and introduced all the wonderful aspects of racing to a wider audience. Spreading the word on a nationwide scale was further extended with the advent of Wogan’s Winner on Terry Wogan’s popular Radio 2 breakfast programme. Even if you didn’t like John Denver or Wogan’s version of the Floral Dance, it was essential listening. Fairbairn brokered a deal that waved the rights the BBC paid for broadcasti­ng from racecourse­s, in exchange for the bulletin.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in another of Tony Fairbairn’s innovative concepts. In 1987 – the same year that Satellite Informatio­n Services (SIS) launched a TV service to betting shops – Fairbairn unleashed Racecall, a telephone commentary service, allowing punters to hear the actual racecourse commentary from a race meeting of your choice. In our current digital world of technologi­cal miracles, this sounds

very primitive and unsophisti­cated but 1987 was a true revolution­ary year for racing fans. The previous service was provided by the Exchange Telegraph (EXTEL) and could only be heard in a betting shop. Anyone alive to witness these commentari­es, heard a disembodie­d voice relaying an approximat­ion of what was happening at the track. Although the commentari­es were a distorted exaggerati­on of the actual race, to the punter in the shop your mental picture of events created excitement, albeit deceptivel­y.

As a fledgling broadcaste­r for SIS working a four-day week (I’d never experience­d such decadence and luxury), I wrote to Fairbairn seeking a Racecall shift or two on one of my free days. Cornelius Lysaght, prior to his heady days as BBC racing correspond­ent, was a founder member and it was he who replied to my request. A ten minute drive from SIS headquarte­rs near Old Street in London, I arrived at Racecall, housed a stones throw from Smithfield Market.

On my trial shift I met, for the first time, many of my racing heroes.

Today it was Peter Bromley and Raleigh Gilbert, both fabled racecaller­s. Bromley was talking very loudly into a cassette recorder, Lysaght was also broadcasti­ng from another device, and Gilbert was across the corridor in the ‘rest room’ leaning out of the window having a smoke. In the corner of the broadcasti­ng room – it certainly wasn’t a studio – sat Fairbairn’s wife Louise, overseeing proceeding­s like a stern invigilato­r at a school exam. Somehow, through technical wizardry, it all worked and the Racecall service thrived until the arrival of computers, the Internet and other gizmos. Despite frequent tickings-off from the ever-attentive Louise for failing to press the ‘record’ button for the 2.30 at Ludlow, they were joyous days. To those who knew or worked with him, Tony Fairbairn was a true innovator and in my opinion the original

Punter’s Pal.

How useful are statistics for finding winners? With informatio­n now at our fingertips we can obtain every fact imaginable about horse, jockey and trainer almost instantly. I’ve only recently stumbled on some facts and figures, confirming that I have been barking up the wrong tree for far too long. Until recently, if I saw that the horse I fancied was blinkered, tonguetied or hooded for the first time (sometimes all three); this could be interprete­d as a potential positive but, emphatical­ly this appears to be total balderdash. Just 7% of horses fitted with these various assortment­s of headgear win, meaning 93 out of 100 lose. Again, horses returning from a gelding operation hold a 90% failure rate, the same as those coming back from wind surgery. Stats enthusiast­s will tell you that the way you interpret this informatio­n can be paramount; many horses that are approachin­g the Last Chance Saloon may be fitted with first time headgear to eek out some unlikely improvemen­t, whereas a horse that may be jumpy or nervous may find the calming influence of a hood provides the key to success. But nine times out of ten it makes not a jot of difference.

Apart from the obvious form of the horse, factors such as going and draw are always worth investigat­ing. I also like course form; a horse that has won five times at Wolverhamp­ton may not be as effective running at Kempton. A prolific winner on the turf may react to the all-weather as if it is galloping on treacle. The horses for courses theory is useful tool, so too I have now learnt is backing ‘Beaten Favourites’ on their post-flop next outing. A success rate of 20% is far higher that all the blinker, wind and tongue-tie info, and I can understand why. A horse that was well backed but loses on his or her previous start is obviously in decent form and there is a 1 in 5 chance that it will win next time. The bottom line I surmise, is that following stats and ratings blindly are unlikely to be profitable but referring to these dynamics may, every other blue moon, tip the scales in your favour.

As you will soon discover from this latest edition of Racing Ahead, September is jammed-packed with top quality races. The weekend of September 11th and 12th highlights what you can expect. At Doncaster it’s St Leger day, and unless an undiscover­ed superstar emerges, HURRICANE LANE will probably win. Charlie Appleby also has the Derby and King George hero ADAYAR entered but he will probably wait until next month’s Champion Stakes at Ascot. Meanwhile in Ireland at Leopardsto­wn on Saturday and following day at the Curragh you can revel in a smorgasbor­d of Group One delights, including the Irish Champion Stakes and the top two year-old event the Moyglare Stud Stakes. Having earlier rubbished first time hood wearers, the applicatio­n of one to York’s Great Voltigeur winner YIBIR certainly worked wonders. He is a tricky customer but a very talented one. The Jockey Club Stakes mid-month at Belmont in New York is a likely target.

On a personal (and far more parochial) platform, rememberin­g how Tony Fairbairn supported and enabled syndicate ownership, as a proud member of the Old Stoic Racing Club, we have enjoyed a few days in the sun this summer with SWEET REWARD, brilliantl­y orchestrat­ed by our trainer Jonathan Portman. With no stats to hinder us it may be worth while keeping an eye on our 2 year-old TIDDLYWINX who is due to make her racecourse debut soon. Note the strategic suffix WINX; we are hoping some of the Australian mega-star’s brilliance is present in TIDDLY’s fetlocks. She was all set to run at Salisbury last month but tore a tooth out on her stable door. And I thought horses were smarter than us.

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Tony Fairbairn

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