14 January 2014
Shortly before Christmas I played 5-a-side football in Manchester and wrecked my knee. Shortly after Christmas I was still barely able to walk as said knee kept buckling: down I would fall onto one knee, time and time again. It was funny on the first dozen occasions. This happened on the banks of Lough Owel in Mullingar (Kilbeggan country for racing folk) just before New Year whilst I was out for a hobble with my poor girlfriend. I ended up on one knee and so decided to take full advantage and propose to her. She said yes, we drank champagne and then sobered up to the prospect of finding an engagement ring.
Hatton Garden is a bamboozling place at the best of times but diamond-hunting, as in racing, is often facilitated by somebody who has the first idea what is going on. And so I enlisted the help of Mr David Keen, jeweller to the racing industry and proud part-owner of Jeremy Noseda's enigmatic five year old, Valbchek.
Valbchek was last seen on a racecourse when taking Lingfield's valuable Golden Rose Stakes - scooping the big all-weather pot for the Listed race and breaking the track record in the process. Returned at 14/1 it was his first win in nine starts and the first for 18 months or so, having not been spotted in the Winners' Enclosure since scooting up at Newmarket's Craven meeting in 2012 en route to a crack at the Jersey and onwards to a Sole Power defeat at our own St Leger meeting later that year. I'd followed him over a cliff ever since his odds-on victory on debut when the dogs were barking the house down, onwards to Newmarket when everything seemed possible and then ultimately for me onwards to financial oblivion for the next 18 months. Barely enough left to buy a hula-hoop, let alone a proper ring.
Valbchek, you see, was not on my radar as I departed a sun-soaked Lingfield the day before his brilliant win. I was preparing for the Saturday of the Open meeting at Cheltenham. It was just as much fun in the Cotswolds on the Saturday (apart from when the message came through about Valbchek's 14/1 win...) but it was very different.
And I guess there's the rub as we weave our way through our inaugural season with the All-Weather Championships. It's all about offering choice - for connections and just as importantly for our customers, in the shops, on the road, online or tablet. We talk of racing fans when we really know there are plenty of segmented fans, and some fans - like me - who love the varied experiences of our sport. Maybe Lingfield in November isn't for everyone, and there were certainly some raised eyebrows in the Cheltenham press room when I revealed why I'd missed the opening day of their meeting. But I was delighted to be part of that sunny Friday in Surrey and for those of us who'd enjoyed competitive racing in the Autumn sun there was just as much good cheer and goodwill as the more celebrated National Hunt spirit. There are still too many people knocking a product that appeals to punters, keeps the show on the road and, dare I say, is pretty damn enjoyable when the weather is as good as the field size. Those who knock choose to do so and we, in turn, listen and choose how best to respond.
Back to business, great progress is being made as we build up to our Good Friday Finale. Around the time that Valbchek was breaking my heart, Dean Ivory's Sirius Prospect took the first qualifier at Kempton for our very own Championship (Mile) race on Good Friday. He's been put away for a break now but we'll see him on Finals Day, all being well.
We also saw the gutsy Grey Mirage battle on strongly to take our second qualifier at Lingfield on Saturday. There was much to like about Marco Botti's five-year-old as he came desperately close to breaking another track record under Martin Harley. That combination of guts and speed could combine to real effect on Good Friday. We're delighted too for Newmarket-based Botti whose upbeat support of the All-Weather Championships has been fantastic.
The picture is becoming clearer and with it, we hope, the enthusiasm for the Championships becomes clearer and stronger too. If it's all about choice, we'll pick up many more supporters in the weeks and months to come.
As for David Keen and Valbchek - David tells me he too had almost given up on his horse and didn't have a copper coin invested on that infamous day last November. Don't weep just yet, though: he's literally just about to sell me that diamond ring and will have no problem paying to go and see his horse in the warmth of Dubai later this month. You never see a poor jeweller, as the old saying should go.
David Williams, Ladbrokes. 14 January 2014