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Thursday, 26 July 2007

Now The Tour Loses Its Ras-Matazz! And Today's Lays

Well, just when you thought the Tour could stoop no lower, dear reader, so it manages to scrape itself sub-terranean.

Yesterday came news of a positive drug test for Christian Moreni (about the only Italian in the race to make the news!).

But worse was to follow, as suspected doping offender, and clear race leader Michael Rasmussen, was sensationally booted out by his own team.

Nobody at cycling's world body or in the Tour organising committee shed a tear for the very suspicious Ras.

It transpires that he has recently failed to notify authorities of his whereabouts on four occasions, when three failures is treated as a positive drug test with an ensuing ban.

But worse than that, and what his paymasters could not accept, Rasmussen lied about his whereabouts in the run-up to the race. He had said that he was in Mexico, where his wife is from.

In fact, he was in Italy working with Dr Michele Ferrari, the infamous cycling quack known to make his wheelers go faster, by fair means or foul.

The cloud of suspicion became too heavy for Rabobank and then it burst, leaving Rasmussen without a job and without a team, and the Tour with a new young (hopefully clean) rider at the helm.

Step forward Alberto Contador. He is around two minutes up on Nag3 selection Cadel Evans, with just one meaningful stage to go.

That stage is the time trial this Saturday, and Evans will be favourite to win it. Whether he can beat Contador, who is a fair TT man himself, by two minutes is doubtful but not impossible.

Either way, barring any more drama, and my top 3 and top 6 wagers on the Aussie look safe. (I also had a small wager on Contador at 22/1 if you remember).

Onto racing, and the Laying System selections. A winner and a loser yesterday, so I'm definitely in the midst (ideally at the end) of a poor run.

Today's lays are:

York 7.30 Secret World
Sandown 3.55 Amarna

On the subject of these lays, and in response to a very surprising email I received, my advice is always to paper trade with a new system.

Moreover, any lay system has the propensity for significant short term losses, which in no way hinders its chances of long term gains.

It happens that this week I started to share the lays on a down cycle, but that will pass. To the gentleman who contacted me to tell me he'd lost money and would be better with a pin, I say you are right sir. You clearly do not have the right attitude with your betting to make something like this pay.

Perhaps you might try Laying Seven or the Laying Maestro systems: I'm told they're very good... (granted I'm told that by their own marketing spiel, and I've never seen them put up a selection ahead of time, but it might be for you sir...)

To take laying seriously, you need a bank of at least 40 points, you need patience and discipline, and you need to see a mid- to long-term view.

Lecture over. Sometimes people just p155 me off!

Back later with part 2 in the series on US vs UK form analysis, for those of you who are interested in such things.

Matt

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Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Ugh, Too Much Vino. I Have A Terrible Hangover...

Wow, I woke up this morning feeling sick to the pit of my stomach, dear reader. My head hurts and I don't really know what day it is.

All I can remember is flirting outrageously with someone who, in the cold light of day, was clearly taking advantage of my good nature and advanced state of inebriation.

I am, of course, talking metaphorically about my worship of the false god who is Vinokourov. The man who was single-handedly building a Tour legend at this year's event has failed (or should it be passed, if you are positive?) a blood test.

The test revealed that he had "old and new red blood cells" in his system on Saturday, the day of his monumental time trial success. This means he must have had a transfusion that day. If he rode like he had the power of two men, that's because he did.

Blood doping, for those who don't know, enables the body to take on extra red blood cells. These are the ones that carry oxygen round the body and sustain a rider's stamina.

Vino is no sporting idol. He is just another cheat in a sport riddled with them. As I suggested in my preview, perhaps cycling was the fairest sport of all because they were all cheating. I had also intimated that that perspective was outmoded and that the sport was entering a cleaner era.

It seems this is not the case. Vino's blatant flouting of the rules, allied to Sinkewitz (the T Mobile rider) already being sent home for testing positive for testosterone, and the growing raincloud of doubt over the head of Tour leader Michael Rasmussen, and the ongoing case against last year's winner, Floyd Landis, make this arguably the darkest of many dark days for recent Tour history.

Indeed, for Rasmussen it has emerged that he did not just receive two warnings, but four, for failing to notify the drug authorities of his whereabouts. Three warnings is supposed to count as a positive drug test and a ban should ensue.

The authorities now have the extremely embarrassing situation where this year's and last year's Tour winners may be thrown out retrospectively.

I don't know what to write, or to make of the current situation. I still love the sport, like I still love a drink. But sometimes when I wake up with a terrible hangover, I just feel I never want to drink again.

Even when there is a party that day, such as the sporting fiesta that is Stage 16 of the Tour today. 218.5km of fearsome climbs and descents: the toughest stage of the Tour. And the question everyone will be asking is, "Who's clean?".

TdF: R.I.P.

Sombre Matt

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Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Raise A Glass To Vino...

Well, dear reader, it seems I was foolish and premature (not the first time I've been either of those two things!) in writing off the inimitable Kazakh, Alexandre Vinokourov.

After smashing the field to pieces on Saturday in the 'contre le montre', he wilted like a badly wilting wilty thing on Sunday in the Pyrenees.

But the man with more stitches in his knees than I have in my jimjams made a superlative comeback of Lazarus proportions yesterday, again riding away from the field, and descending down a mountain path at 60mph to score his second stage victory of the race.

Having lost about half an hour on Sunday, he is now no threat to the overall lead in the race and, with a rest day today, it's far from impossible that he could win the last mountain stage tomorrow. Certainly, the main players for the overall title will not chase him, and none of the other riders can live with him in the form he showed yesterday.

Furthermore, on Saturday, there is the second and final time trial, for which he must again be favourite.

And, as if four possible stage wins wasn't enough, he has previously won the final stage on the Champs Elysee, an event traditionally collared by a sprinter.

What a bizarre situation it would be if a rider won five stages of the Tour, and yet still didn't finish in the top 20 overall!

I have nothing but admiration for this guy, for the way he has refused to give up, and has fought on with honour and humility. He is the ultimate sportsman for me right now. 'Chapeau', as they say in France. (Or 'hats off', as we might say).

Onto racing, and wouldn't you just know it... As I launch the trial of my laying system, so we get smacked in the chops with an 11/2 winner. No matter, a few points loss on the day, but the overall pattern is positive, and let's see where we are come the end of the week.

Today's lays are:

Yarmouth Tonnante
Yarmouth Ainama

(Incidentally, Tonnante was one of my alternative ten to follow for the season, so I have mixed feelings about that one! You can read about the other mutts I tipped up here.)

On the punting front, Neil Callan did indeed plough Beverley's near side rail yesterday as hoped (and many others followed him), and he prevailed by a comfortable margin for a nice 10/3 winner for me and TrainerFlatStats punters too.

Over at Windsor, my bet of the day - Marozi - fared less well, coming in a well outpointed 4th. He travelled like a winner until the business end of the race, but found nought. Disappointing, and I suspect he may be a much better horse on sand. It wouldn't surprise me to see this one race in the States before the season is out. He's certainly bred for it.

I can't find anything worth backing today, so - like my friends at the Tour - I shall have a rest day. It's high time I did some work!

Pip pip!
Matt

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Saturday, 21 July 2007

Contre Le Montre...

Rejoice dear reader, for today the Tour picture becomes clearer. Today the riders will not race against each other, but rather they will race against the clock (in French, literally, contre le montre).

And in so doing, when no man can ask his teammates for support, or to chase a breakaway down, or to slow a rider who has scurried up a mountain, the men will become separated from the boys.

Except that in this race, they are all men. So it might be more correct to say the supermen will be separated from the men.

Semantic pedantics aside, and there are only a few with serious aspirations of winning today's stage. For many others, notably Michael Rasmussen, but also Alberto and Alejandro (that's Contador and Valverde to you), the day will be about damage limitation.

These guys know that Andreas Kloden will take time from them. They also fear that Cadel Evans and, to a lesser extent, Alex Vinokourov will distance themselves in the General Classement.

For Rasmussen, who is a mediocre time triallist, the biggest challenge will be to retain the golden jersey at day's end.

Kloden is but 3 minutes 50 seconds back, Evans just 2' 41" behind the Great Dane. Both could surpass Rasmussen today.

That said, rumours of Razz's demise may prove somewhat premature, as - although he isn't the best TT'er by any stretch of the imagination - he has something to really fight for this time, and he'll surely not have the luck that saw him crash twice in last year's TT event.

Today, though, he'll be delighted to lose just two minutes. He'll be happy to lose three minutes, and he'll likely not be too disappointed to lose three and a half minutes.

His biggest problem is that this is the first of two contre le montre's in this year's race, and he'll not be allowed to get away in the Pyrenees as he was in the Alps. For me, Rasmussen's chance of the overall victory is slim.

I expect there to be only a couple of GC contenders to come up smelling of roses today: Kloden and Evans.

Vino, despite his hugely admirable battling qualities (lesser men would long since have headed home), will try for a big ride today, but his knees are bloodied and stitched and - in truth - so is his will.

For all that I think Klodie and Cadel will enhance their overall prospects today, I don't necessarily think they will win the stage. It's worth remembering that Kloden has never won a Tour stage, but has finished second four times.

Today may be his maiden victory, but I'd rather side with a couple of others, namely Fabian Cancellara and Denis Menchov.

The first named is a TT specialist, having won the prologue in this race by a wide margin, and also the World TT Championship. His price of 6/4 reflects that, and - although those odds are skinny - he must be in the first two, bar a fall.

Menchov is a nag of an altogether blacker caste (that's a dark horse, my friends!). He is an excellent clock racer, and came into the Tour as the team leader for Rabobank before being usurped by his mountaineering mate, Michael (of the Rasmussen clan).

This man is a mean TT'er and has a point to prove. 100/1 is a standout price on a guy with a genuine chance. Back him each way and you could easily be picking up a 25/1 payout for a place, perhaps better.

After a dismal run of trying to pick stage winners, I'm confident I have the first five home today.

So here we go:

1. Cancellara
2. Kloden
3. Menchov
4. Evans
5. Vinokourov (or maybe Kashechkin)

Time will tell. Quite literally today.

Matt

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Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Various Racing Despatches

Good morning again, dear reader, and a veritable mixed bag for you today.

First up, a quick review of yesterday. I managed to get Fourteenth beaten, which takes my own little laying system (in the latter stages of trial) to 113 losers from 139 selections (over 81% beaten).

Average winning odds around 11/4, and profit to £20 level stakes (with betfair over odds at 16% and 5% commission accounted for) is currently £478. More on this in due course.

This week's guest system is Betting Exchange Profits and, after I poohpoohed it in my introduction, it responded in the best possible way, by thumbing its nose at me and showing a profit on the day of £218. Hmm... Let's see how it performs today.

Finally on the laying systems front, just a quick reminder that you can still take advantage of Terry Allen's (overly?) generous offer of his system (one winning bet from one yesterday) for free when you subscribe to his newsletter - there's a sample copy available at

http://www.thebettinginsider.com/nnn.htm

or you can read my review of the system's performance on the Premium Systems page from the banner at the top of this page.

(Incidentally, if you want to know about the calibre of writing in the newsletter, I should mention that I am a contributor. This may or may not influence your decision to check out the sample copy!!!!)

Onwards, and a regular reader and emailer, Keith Benson, has passed me news of a racing syndicate he has, which may be of interest to some readers.

Keith has a small stud operation based in Yorkshire, and he is affiliated with the trainer, Noel Wilson, also based at Flaxton, near York.

He currently has shares available in a smashing Captain Rio filly called Joint Agency. Interestingly, and Keith didn't mention this, but I note she has two entries for next week (21st July), so you might be able to witness her debut as an owner!

Anyway, enough from me on this, except to say that I've always loved the thrill of ownership, from my early days when I was one of over 100,000 involved in the cracking Elite Racing Club partnership, to now when I am a tenth part-owner of Rapid City, a winner of three races (and placed twice more) from seven starts for us. I was also lucky enough to own a twelfth of the legendary (at least in the circles I move in!) Love's Design, a winner of no less than seven races in our colours.

More information can be found in Keith's newsletter, which I've reproduced here:

http://www.nag-nag-nag.co.uk/NWRNewsletter.htm

Any questions, please contact Keith direct on the details at the bottom of the newsletter.

Despatches now complete, we move onto today's action, and for me, I'm happy to pass on the jockeys on quadrupeds and instead focus on the jockeys on bicycles.

This year's Tour is extremely cunning in construction as, I think for the first time ever, the average gradient of the climbs increases with each mountain stage.

So after the relative breeze of Saturday, followed by Michael Rasmussen's statement of intent on Sunday, his excellent solo climb in many ways reminiscent of the late great Marco Pantani (another very sad loss to the sport), the action is ratcheted up a sprocket or two today.

After the rest day yesterday, there is guaranteed to be more carnage in the peloton, as the stage starts with the first Hors Categorie ('Out of Category', which I believe I referred to as Horse Categorie in a previous post - had the nags on the brain!) of this year's bikefest.

These are buggers, and today they start with one, and pretty much end with one. Those 'lucky' pedalers will have just over 40 km's of uphill on the itinery today, and the forecast is for very hot weather.

If you have a chance to look at Eurosport today, I would encourage you to do it. There's something slightly sadistic about viewing this kind of sporting spectacle and I find it much more to my tastes than the rather bass puerility of pugilism (apologies to boxing fans, just not typically my bag) and, possibly, more physically demanding of the combatants.

I expect the field of possible overall race winners to be much reduced after a very tough stage, but finding today's stage winner is likely no easy task.

The reason for this is that the last 35km or so are downhill, which means that a lone breakaway rider could well open up a time gap early on and stay clear, as long as he is no threat to the overall race lead.

Rasmussen will surely not be allowed the length of leash that has made him a genuine Tour contender (though his pathetic time trialling will add a touch of reality to that claim on Saturday, in my opinion). Any move by the Great Dane will be covered by all serious aspirants for this year's maillot jaune, so long as they can stay with him.

Interestingly, the stage route today meanders (if that's the right term for a road that straddles three very large Alps!) along the French-Italian border, and this may be a day when a strong Italian climber who is no threat to the overall classification strikes a bid for glory.

There are a few contenders: Cristian Moreni, Dario Cioni, and Alessandro Ballan are all triple figure odds and, of the trio, perhaps Ballan (160 on betfair at time of writing), the winner of the Trois Jours De La Panne and the Tour of Flanders this year, can embellish his impressive portfolio still further.

All of the big boys are atop the stage market, but I reckon a rider like Ballan - who is more than half an hour behind on the general classification - may get clear. Forza Azzurri! (as they say, down my way...)

It is interesting to note how many strong riders from Spain there are this year and, while I reckon most will be saving themselves for a bid nearer the Basque territory in the Pyrenees, the 11/8 offered by Sportingodds for a Spanish rider to win the stage is a little tempting (if also a little short in what can be something of an 'educated crapshoot').

Savour today's stage if you have a chance - Eurosport have put together a real A Team, with the best presenter in TV sport, James Richardson, joined by 1987 Tour winner Sean Roche (if anyone knows how these boys are feeling, he does), and the legendary and fabulously eccentric 'Duffers' (David Duffield).

There is real banter in the studio and real drama on the roads, so today promises to be a very entertaining afternoon in front of the gogglebox. Bring it on!!

More later...
Matt

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Saturday, 14 July 2007

Moreau The Same on Bastille Day....

Saturday is upon us dear reader and, as such, most of us are free from those nasty Monday through Friday shackles, and can kick back and enjoy the weekend.

Spare a thought then for the poor boogers who will be toiling desperately over the next two days in searing heat, chasing each other up Alp and down dale.

But spare that thought in the knowledge that this is one of the great sporting spectacles in the calendar and, for me at least, an event not to be missed.

The festival of pain is further heightened today by the fact that it is Bastille Day in France, one of their most significant holidays.

After Friday's frog fun, it would be no surprise if the amphibian theme was maintained into today, with a 'grenouille' victory at Le Grand-Bornand (for it is there, at the base of the 1613 metre Col de la Columbiere mountain that today's stage will end).

I fancy a French winner today, and already you can have 5/2 about that, which I've availed myself of.

But who specifically? Well, my money is nailed to the tricolore of one man in particular: Christophe Moreau. The French have a proud tradition in the King of the Mountains competition with Richard Virenque a national icon despite his career being tainted with the almost ubiquitous drug smear.

Moreau was the closest challenger to last year's KotM winner, Michael Rasmussen, and will be keen to assert some pressure on the Dane on this first big day for the climbers.

At 10/1, he looks cracking value and is added to my Frenchie to win the stage wager.

To complete the punting today, I'll chuck in Rasmussen himself for a top three finish. With serious points up for grabs today, he'll not be far from the action, and - even if there is a breakaway - that still gives us a chance of collecting on the great Dane. At 13/2, he looks cracking top 3 value.

The race is replete with its usual intrigue after Thursday's crashes and injuries to the ante post favourite and second choices, Vinokourov and Kloden. Both are doubtful and may or may not start today. Vino has stitches in a knee wound and 'Klodie' has aggravated an old coccyx injury, with a hairline fracture.

I've strengthened my overall position on Cadel Evans, by backing him to win, be in the first 3, and the first 6. I can't have Valverde and the top two are doubtful. This renders the race wide open.

I've also had a little tickle on an up and comer, Alberto Contador. To be honest, I don't know too much about him, but the right dogs are barking in his favour, and the race will take marginally less winning than normal, so on that basis he makes the portfolio.

I was delighted to see the 3yo's inject some fresh interest in the sprinting ranks yesterday, with Sakhee's Secret answering all my questions about class, and Dutch Art following him home. It's been a frustrating week at Newmarket for me, having tried to beat both SS and WW (Winker Watson).

Throw in the fact that Boonen won the Tour stage yesterday when I tried to get him beaten, and a few too many jollies have hit the board for my liking!

Nevertheless, I've been peppering the target if not quite hitting the bullseye, so confidence remains high.

And, after the carnage of Thursday, I managed four lays from four yesterday, including Alambic (laid at 8/11, returned evens).

For a great free laying service, see Thursday's post here:

http://www.nag-nag-nag.co.uk/2007/07/review-of-easy-money-laying-system-plus.html

Good luck with your weekend wagers and, just for once, Allez La France!

Matt

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Friday, 13 July 2007

Triskaidekaphobia?

Not just the name of a mediocre racehorse, dear reader, but also the fear of the number 13. From the Greek, Tris = three, kai = and, deka = ten, according to Wikipedia. And today is Friday as well, to compound the concerns of the more superstitious in our fine community.

Well, for me, it was very much a case of duokaidekaphobia, as Thursday 12th provided one of my most memorable blowout days ever, in a betting context at least.

My lays won (and how! 4/6, 11/8, 7/2 and - wait for it - 6/1!) to undo about a month's good work with a new system I'm playing with. My back selections are still running (one was reported missing late last night - last seen a furlong adrift somewhere on Newmarket Heath...).

I thought I'd caught a cracker with Philippe Gilbert in the Tour when he was the most aggressive man in a three rider breakaway. But, after 120 km's away from the peloton, the plucky trio were engulfed with just six miles to race.

So it was a case of Philippe f-lop (geddit?!).

No matter, for today is another day. I am reminded of one of my favourite racing maxims, and one which I would strongly advise all of you to consider:

After a good run, expect a bad run. After a bad run, expect a good run.

This is the unequivocal law of our game, and it serves me well in times of need. Like today, having done my poke yesterday!

Of course, my bad luck cycle may not be quite through, but I was born an optimist and I will die one, so onwards and downwards it must be.

July Cup is the big race of the day, and much discussion is centred on the 3yo Sakhee's Secret. The boy has been massively impressive in Listed class, but it's one hell of a step up in grade, straight into a Group 1.

I've been reading a book about class, that most ethereal of traits (in both humans and horseflesh), so it was interesting to read James Willoughby's piece in the Racing Post today about class and how it affects racehorses.

Willoughby notes that, although the final time of today's race may be akin to the times that SS has already been running, he is likely to encounter much faster early fractions than he ever has before. Quite simply, he could be spent before halfway.

There is much credence in this. Furthermore, as Dr James Quinn, the leading US author on class, asserts, class can also be measured in a horse's ability to withstand challenges. SS has yet to have to hang tough under duress in his classic season and, as a 2yo, in the two of his three races when he was challenged, he folded tamely (he won the other race by six lengths!).

On balance, though I think he is a very (very!) fast horse, I am against SS, as I just think he will be outclassed today. He won't be able to dominate these in the way he has other fields, and he may well be on the retreat before halfway, having struggled with the early fractions.

Against him, I am a big fan of the fastest cripple on four legs, Soldier's Tale. Whether his fragile frame will stand up on the faster grass of the Heath remains to be seen, but I'll have a small win bet at the available 12/1 in case.

I'll strengthen my hand with a horse placed in the 2,000 Guineas and now dropping back to a trip he looks suited to, Dutch Art. Lots of non-staying milers have found their metier when dropped to sprint trips, and this horse definitely oozes the class which Sakhee's Secret has yet to prove. While 5/1 is not a sexy price, it is a fair one, and the Chapple-Hyam yard could hardly be in better form.

If SS wins, I will be the first to salute a potential new champ; if the Soldier battles home in front, I'll be delighted for the old knacker; if Dutch Art wins, I will feel vindicated that at least fresh blood is appearing in a frankly below class division of British racing (the sprinters).

If something else wins, I'll not be surprised, but I will be a little disappointed (and a few quid still poorer).

A lay for the day, and my system yet again throws up one of my favourite trainers. This time it tells me that Alambic cannot win, even though Sir Mark Prescott forgets more about racing on a daily basis than I will ever know. Let's hope this time he's placed his nag inappropriately. It doesn't happen very often, for sure.

By the way, talking of lays, if you missed yesterday's post, have a look at the review of the 'Easy Money Laying' system, and learn how you can get it for free. (Of course, there's a small condition, but - trust me - it's a favourable one).

Check it out here: http://www.nag-nag-nag.co.uk/blog.html and look for Thursday's post.

Onto the Tour, and today is very much the calm before the storm. From tomorrow, the riders are faced with the literal highs and lows of the Alps. This is a part of the race where riders are - in some cases, sadly, literally - killing themselves to get home in front. (Tom Simpson, the British rider, collapsed and died on Mont Ventoux forty years ago. Others have tragically passed the same way since, notably the Italian Fabio Casartelli, descending in the Pyrenees).

So, today will be an edgy day, with the big riders wanting to conserve their energies for what is to come (especially Vinokourov who crashed yesterday and lost big time on his rivals - he will be fun to watch over the weekend), and with sprinters wanting one last hurrah before many of them cry enough, not able to go the ominous metre of the peloton as it wends itself inexorably upward.

If you take the view that it will be a sprint finish, as I do, then there are only a handful of riders who can realistically win.

Tom Boonen is a perennial challenger and multiple sprint stage winner, but he banged his arm a few days back, and has been off the pace since. While it wouldn't surprise me if he resurged, I will look elsewhere.

I am a huge fan of the Norwegian monster, Thor Hushovd. The man's a genetic freak and frankly scares the 5h1t out of me. But boy can he ride! He's a 10.5/1 shot in betfair's book and I'll have some of that.

The other really obvious candidate is Robbie McEwan. At 4/1, he's not exactly great value but he will likely be only a wheel away from first place, if he doesn't prevail. I'll reluctantly swerve him in the quest for a bit of value.

Finally, at a surprisingly large price for a new kid on the block, Gert Steegmans can be backed at 85. He's already won a sprint stage, beating Boonen in Belgium, and he can give us a bit of fun at a massive price.

As I'm writing this, I see that Bradley Wiggins, the British rider has made a lone break. He is currently 5'40" up on the peloton, but this is surely a move to get his sponsor some publicity. I'd be astonished (and absolutely delighted) if he could maintain his prominence to stage end, but nevertheless 'Go Brad!!'.

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Thursday, 12 July 2007

Back In The Saddle...

Aah, its good to be back dear reader, its good to be back...

After trying my arm (with a degree of success that at least minimised losses) on US racing, its nice to find the familiar conformation of the Racing Post form guide to help me find winners and losers again.

For those of you not familiar with form study in the USA, its a completely different ball game to here in the UK. I will be sharing some of their interesting alternative interpretations of past performance with you over coming days and weeks.

For now though, suffice it to say that I'm certain that the fundamental constructs of US race analysis: class, pace and speed, can be applied successfully at least to all weather racing in this country, and possibly more widely. And I'll be looking to prove that in due course too.

Back to today, and the two big events are Newmarket's ongoing July meeting and Stage 5 of the Tour de France.

At Newmarket, the racing is as fiercely competitive as ever. Yesterday, there seemed to be a small preference towards middle to high numbers, so we'll use that to try to find a couple of winners.

Winker Watson looks a very smart horse, and followers of TrainerFlatStats know all about Peter Chapple-Hyam with his 2yo colts, as he was featured as one of the trainers to follow in a bonus product accompanying that. His record this season with his young boys is exceptional.

However, its worth noting that Chapple-Hyam's brilliant Turtle Island won the same Ascot race before being beaten here back in 1993 and, with an extra three pounds to lug here, the Winker doesn't look great value. Drawn in 1 may also be the worst of the draw so, while I stop short of laying him, I will certainly look elsewhere for the winner.

Swiss Franc is the most likely opponent, but he fares little better in the draw, having received the number 2 gate. Obviously, there's going to be plenty of pace on that side if the field splits, but I reckon its more likely that they will come over to the middle or the near side rail. That being the case, the top and bottom horses just mentioned will have to run an extra six or seven lengths to traverse the track.

Would you bet them giving up six lengths at 2/1 or 9/2 respectively? They could improve sufficiently for the extra furlong to do this, but it would be an indictment of the rest of the field in my book.

So, for me, as a value alternative, I'll plump for Spirit of Sharjah. Regular readers will suggest that this is a sentimentalist selection, as the horse is trained by Julia Feilden, trainer of my own (bit of) horse, Rapid City.

Sharjah is far and away the best 2yo Julia's had, and wasn't beaten far behind Winker Watson at Royal Ascot last time (eventually finished 3rd). He's bred to appreciate the extra furlong, is much better drawn in 8, and gets a 3lb pull for 1 1/4 lengths. If you buy into the theory of extra distance travelled for Winker to get across the course, then 9/1 about Julia's colt must be a decent each way wager.

He'll do for me. That said, one that could make all of these look like schoolboys against a college graduate is Paul Cole's River Proud. I have to concede to not being a fan of Cole, and to actually detesting Richard Quinn, the horse's pilot (I hold him responsible for the demise of the now resurgent HRA Cecil stable).

But this horse could, in the vernacular of racing, be anything. Dotting up by five lengths on debut in what looked a decent maiden even by Newbury standards, he apparently looked like a beastie before the race there. It wouldn't surprise me if this horse took the field apart but, at 7/2, there's a whole lot of improvement already factored into his price.

Elsewhere on the card, there are some impossible looking races, and I'll likely steer clear of most, but I can never resist a small each way tickle in insoluble handicaps, and the 2.35 is just that. 20 unexposed 3yo's over a mile and a quarter means the race may become something of a crapshoot. No matter!

Pipedreamer (what I may be, thinking I can find the winner in here) is more unexposed than most, and could easily make it a hat-trick of wins in this race, but at 5/1 is too short for a play in a race like this. I'm looking for double digits about my losing ticket(!), and the 10/1 about Bid For Glory will do for me. The horse improved to win his last race at a mile, is well berthed in 18, and should improve for the extra quarter mile here.

If trained by Stoute or Gosden, he'd be vying for favouritism, and Hugh Collingridge is no slacker in the handling department. Four places for each way punters means you'll get a bit more than your dough back if he makes the leading quartet.

On the laying side of things, one I definitely want to be against is Nimra in the 3.30 at Warwick. Topweight will only slow this already slow horse down still further and, though I have the utmost respect for the trainer, this probably isn't his finest placement of one of his charges. For all that, at around 6/1 to lay on betfair, he's too big a price for my tastes.

Elsewhere, Perfectperformance at 4/6 looks opposable in the 8.10 at Nottingham. There's only four runners, so every chance that the race will be tactical. If Tucker has a couple of lengths on the Godolphin jolly with a quarter mile to run, he can outrun the seasonal debutant to the line.

Indeed, Nakheel may well lead them in too, and is a second plausible threat to the underpriced and overbet favourite. I'll try to get Perfectperformance beaten.

Onto the Tour, and after a few easy to find stage winners in Cancellara (prologue), Boonen and Hushovd (sprint finishes), along with less easy to find winners in Staegmans (sprint beating team mate Boonen in both their home country, Belgium) and Cancellara again (brilliant opportunistic strike from excellent short distance rider), it gets considerably more difficult today.

After the flats of England and Belgium and, thus far, France too, the roads start to beckon the riders on an elevated plane for the first time today. Eight categorised climbs feature in a 120 mile slog (four Category 4's, three 3's and a 2 - luckily, the 1's and HC's (Horse Categorie, or Out of Category!) are yet to come!) from Chablis - where I'd be tempted to stay and drink their fine produce - to Autun, and it will not be a day for the sprinters.

Nor will it be a day for the main men in the Tour, as they will be keeping their powder dry for bigger fish to fry (how's that for a rhyming mixed metaphor?!).

No, today I suspect will see a breakaway winner, and possible a new yellow jersey wearer by end of day. On a day when there are any number of journeymen who will strive for the stage win that will justify their inclusion in the team, I'll go with a couple of old stagers and a new kid on the block.

Jens Voigt has been there, seen it, done it, and printed his own T-shirts in Tours de France, and he'll likely be to the fore of any breakways. He's currently 56th on the overall 'classement', behind by just 68 seconds. A decisive breakaway from him today and he could be the proud owner of not just a stage win but also the 'maillot jaune'.

The only question is whether that prize would mean more than a stage win. If that were the case, he could trade the stage victory for the coveted race leader jersey, and work with another rider. Nevertheless, he makes the shortlist.

Joining him is another tough as teak 'battleur', Sandy Casar. Himself only 1 minute 11 seconds off the pace, Casar is a frequent winner of the 'coeur de lion' (lion heart) shirt, awarded daily for the bravest, most aggressive rider. Where he gets his reserves from, I don't know (although I suspect its probably from a bottle of EPO...!), and he's definitely on the list.

Finally, and from the up and coming ranks, I'll throw in Phillipe Gilbert. The roads here are supposedly similar to his home region of the Walloon in Belgium. He's a proven single day race winner, and this course will ride like a single day road event.

The odds on these three warriors are: Voigt 14/1, Gilbert 29/1 and Casar 79/1 (all betfair), and for throwaway stakes these guys should give you an interest.

More later. Ciao for now.
Matt

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Friday, 6 July 2007

Tour de France Preview: The Race For The Maillot Jaune

The world’s greatest cycling event, and the most watched sporting event in Europe is a three week slog for all of the competitors.

But for the ‘maillot jaune’ challengers, the demands are particularly fierce. To have a serious chance of winning, you need the climbing skills of a wisteria plant allied to the speed in the ‘contre le montres’ (against the clocks) of a track cyclist.

It is a rare breed indeed that can be effective at both disciplines, hence the starting roster for Le Tour of pushing two hundred can quickly be whittled down to about half a dozen from a punting perspective.

In recent times, there has been monopoly ownership of the race, with first Miguel Indurain, the Spanish powerhouse, winning six Tour titles. Then, after just a couple of years’ respite, Lance Armstrong won an astonishing record seven on the bounce.

The strength of the American grip on the race was accentuated last year in controversial fashion when Floyd Landis won the race, only to be stripped of his title a few days later for testing positive for blood doping.

Doping in the sport is endemic, and – if you let it – it will kill your pleasure of the race. For my part, I choose to assume they’re all cheating and, therefore, the race is fair. As perverse as that logic is, it’s probably the most rational starting point.

Landis will not be here to defend his crown. Nor will Jan Ullrich be trying for a second triumph so many years after his first. Nor either will Ivan Basso grace the Grand Depart in London, the most obvious contender for the longer term mantle after Armstrong’s retirement.

All are banned or retired, and under a cloud of doping allegations, either acknowledged or otherwise.

But, for all the doubts about the health of the sport, and the missing combatants, the race remains – and always will remain – a unique sporting spectacle.

No other sporting event that I’m aware of places the same physical and emotional demands on its field. This in itself is the singlemost likely reason for such widespread drug abuse in the sport.

(Incidentally, lest you think that drug cheats in cycling are a new problem, be assured that since the time of Jacques Ancquetil and before, riders have openly acknowledged the use of barbiturates and amphetamines, as well as good old cognac, to get them over the mountains).

To this year’s race, starting in London for the first time, and the battle for the overall title of Tour de France winner.

The jolly old favourite is the second most famous Kazakh on the planet (after Borat, ahem), Alexander Vonokourov. The man is a big tank, his legs two titanium crafted pistons thumping down on his irons with unstintingly merciless, metronomic regularity.

As an athlete, Vino is by far the strongest man in the race (perhaps followed in by the Norse god, Thor Hushovdt), and he will not yield to any man in terms of the physical battle.

But for Vino, the problems are all under his racing helmet. The man is plainly psychotic! One of the most amazing things from the plethora of amazing things that make cycling the compelling spectacle that it is, is that some days you just have to let riders go flying by you, and accept that you will lose time to them in the overall ‘classement’.

This fact was never better illustrated than last year, when Floyd Landis had a bad day. A really bad day. As Floyd floundered, he was passed by the mountain goats from the peloton, a number of whom had real aspirations of carrying yellow to Paris.

Landis could barely raise a canter, let alone a gallop, as rider after rider passed him by. Having already lost over thirty minutes to the Spaniard Oscar Pereiro, who was not seen as a threat for the overall title, Landis collapsed on Stage 16, losing a further ten minutes that day.

And yet, miraculously (and allegedly by foul means), the very next day Landis produced one of the great solo rides in Tour history to claw back all but a few seconds of his deficit against the hapless Hispanic.

The final time trial was a strength for Landis and a weakness for Pereiro and, as such, the inevitable regaining of the yellow jersey was sealed in a truly extraordinary Tour.

That rather lengthy aside reveals how some times you have to lose battles in order to win the war. Our man, Vinokourov, I fear will never cede in a battle. He is a warrior, and he detests defeat.

It is a cliché in sport that some athletes only have themselves to fear, and my suspicion is that the Kazakh comet will implode at some point in the mountains, be they Pyrenean or Alpine.

So, the 5/2 favourite removed from our thoughts, we can focus on the remainder of the field with value assured. (Unless of course our man from Kazakhstan does the beeswax..!)

Vino’s key antagonists are likely to be all or a subset of Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, Alejandre Valverde, and 2006 runner up Oscar Pereiro.

My ante-post fancy, Damiano Cunego, has (sensibly) decided not to race this year. He won the Giro d’Italia and at 26 is still younger than the average Tour contender (28 to 32 is considered prime time). He’ll be back next year, and will be one to watch.

Enough of those who are not here, and onto those who are.

Oscar Pereiro probably had his chance last year and blew it. The fact is he cannot time trial and nobody wins a TdF without being able to beat the clock. He may very well win a mountain stage and, as a Spaniard, you should pay special attention to him in the Pyrenees, but he just isn’t quick enough when it matters to trouble the judge. A red line struck through the Pereiro then.

Cadel Evans is a very interesting entrant. The former World Champion Mountain Bike rider is a curious convert to road racing, and is hugely talented. As a mountain biker, he has a fine blend of stamina and raw speed, and can be counted on to rarely lose much time against his rivals.

His weakness, like Vinokourov’s, is mental. Unlike Vino though, his problem is one of being too conservative. Watching Evans, you always get the feeling that he’s hanging in there and saving a bit for another day. The problem is, I’ve yet to see the day when he’s used it!

2007 could well be Evans’ year, and he is definitely on my shortlist. A top six finish wager gives a cracking chance of a payout, granted fortune along the route (something which can be pretty hard to come by..!)

Carlos Sastre is many people’s idea of the winner. He’s certainly not for me, as his two key flaws are poor time trialling (an automatic scratch for me) and a conservative mentality. His consistency commands respect, but his win record is testament to his lack of aggression and his relative slowness in TT’s.

For me, the biggest conundrum of a rider is Andreas Kloden. I’m a huge fan of the German and perennially back him for a place (and perennially get paid out). Formerly with T-Mobile, and playing a supporting role in the team, this season he has moved to Vinokourov’s Astana team.

He is an excellent climber and a very capable time triallist. So why is he not a standout wager? Two reasons: firstly, although the pair have a bizarre dislike of each other bordering on hatred, he has a pact with Vino to be his ‘general’ this year, in exchange for Vino reciprocating in 2008 and 2009. Personally, I am confident that this relationship will never last that long, and it’s possible that if Kloden feels fresh and Vino self-combusts, he will take the reins this year.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I question Kloden’s temperament and his consistency. He seems much happier in the supporting role, as per his alleged alliance with Astana this year, and he sunk without trace the year in between his silver and bronze medal finishes.

As a rider who has already finished second and third in Tours de France, his credentials do stand up to considerably more scrutiny than most though. A probable podium finisher, in my view.

Which just leaves us to consider the credentials of Alejandre Valverde. An immensely talented young Spanish rider, Valverde has yet to finish a Tour in two attempts. Although bad luck has played its part in this, facts are facts, and he is still raw and unproven over the full three gruelling weeks of the Tour.

Additionally, he is a relatively weak time triallist, and would need to be in the order of two minutes ahead of the best TT’ers after the last mountain stage to be considered the likely winner. (A time trial stage always precedes the final stage procession into Paris: it serves as a final opportunity for a rider to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, or vice versa in the case of poor Pereiro last year).

So there you have it. There are reasons why no rider is a standout to win this year’s Tour. Luck will play its part, especially in the first week, when the race cannot be won but it sure as hell can be lost. Crashes aplenty tend to occur and if a rider gets caught behind a pile up he can be three or four minutes down almost before a pedal has been powerfully pushed in earnest.

To be honest, I’m inclined not to strike an outright win wager on anyone. The spectre of drugs always leaves the worry that a rider could be suspended at any point as well.

My strongest advice is that I think Kloden and Evans are excellent top three wagers, and cast iron (bar a fall) top six punts.

Vino will probably win it if his head doesn’t always govern his body, and I wouldn’t begrudge him that, especially not to his face. The man has legs like tree trunks, and arms like legs!

What I do know for sure is that the race will have its usual mix of thrills and spills, classic scenery, tear jerking stories, and of course – the reason I watch above all others – phenomenal human endeavour in the face of the sheerest of sporting challenges.

The man who finishes last in Paris is a sporting legend in my book, those that beat him are in the pantheon of the sporting gods.

Catch all the action at http://www.letour.fr/2007/TDF/COURSE/us/index.html


Bravo tutti!

Matt

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