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Mind Games in Horse Racing

Oscar Foulkes October 25, 2015 Horse Racing No comments
Arezzo-wins-Listed-Settlers-TrophyHorse racing is pitched as “the intelligent bet” because there are so many dimensions that can be critically examined. I’m going to illustrate this by means of a race that was run yesterday at Kenilworth.

This does come with an advance apology. Much of what follows may be somewhat technical (or, ‘higher grade’, as some may say), but I’ll try to keep it as accessible as possible. It’s not for nothing that I’ve used “mind games” in the title of this post!

On Monday last week, the field was published for the Woolavington Handicap, to be run over 2400m at Kenilworth:

Zante 4yo filly 61kg
Deputy Ryder 4yo filly 58kg
Desert Swirl 5yo colt 58kg
Friendly Tibbs 5yo gelding 57.5kg
Ovidio 5yo gelding 55kg
Arezzo 4yo colt 52.5kg
Parachute Man 4yo gelding 52kg
Forte de Ouro 4yo colt 52kg
A Time To Kill 5yo gelding 52kg
Private Doowaley 6yo colt 52kg

A handicap is a race in which the horses carry weights – assigned by the handicapper – that will theoretically result in a dead heat. In other words, the weight is used to equalise the relative merit of the runners. However, the South African merit rating system, as used by the handicappers, is something of a blunt instrument, in that horses often end up with ratings so high that they are rendered uncompetitive at the weights they then have to carry.

On this basis, I immediately wrote off Zante and Deputy Ryder, both of which are good fillies, but nowhere near good enough to carry 61kg and 58kg against a decent field of colts.

With the exception of Ovidio, many of these horses met a month earlier, in the Settlers Trophy. I’ll go into the rationale shortly, but immediately upon seeing the Woolavington field, I sent Jono Snaith this message: “I think Ovidio is a big runner if he gets the extra 400m (assuming his 4.5 length beating of A Time to Kill is a fair reflection).” Like Arezzo, Ovidio is trained by Justin Snaith. My interest in all this comes about as a result of my tiny shareholding in Arezzo.

Jono was confident that he would get the distance. My doubts lay in the first two generations of Ovidio’s pedigree, which is loaded with horses who were best up to about a mile. However, his grandam was by Kenmare, a solid 2400m influence. Further stamina can be found in his third generation, but it needed to leapfrog the more immediate ancestors.

As you can see, all of this analysis is multi-dimensional, bringing together not just handicapping, but also genealogy.

Before we get to the actual races that make up this analysis, a bit of background on handicapping. Weight has a drag effect, which is measurable – Newton’s Second Law in action. The conversion of weight to lengths beaten over different distances is not widely publicised. The work of Phil Bull, the founder of Timeform, is key to this, but given that he did his work without the benefit of computers, the conversion rates are in user-friendly round numbers, rather than pesky decimals.

Establishing the data for ‘lengths beaten’ is a minefield of its own, because of the different ways of calculating it. For the sake of this explanation, let’s just accept the data as recorded officially.

Timeform do not publish their pounds-per-length conversion. This is what the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) uses:
5 furlongs: 3lbs per length
6 furlongs: 2.5lbs per length
7f-8f: 2lbs per length
9-10f: 1.75lbs per length
11-13f: 1.5lbs per length
14f: 1.25lbs per length
15f+: 1lb per length
(one furlong is approximately 200m)

Locally, Charles Faull uses these conversions:
1000-1400m: 3lbs per length
1500-1900m: 2lbs per length
2000-2300m: 1.5lbs per length
2400m+: 1lb per length

If we use 2lbs per length at 1600m as the mid-point, then a mathematical suggestion is:
1000m: 3,20lbs
1200m: 2,67lbs
1400m: 2,29lbs
1600m: 2,00lbs
1800m: 1,78lbs
2000m: 1,60lbs
2200m: 1,45lbs
2400m: 1,33lbs

For an apparently scientific view on the same stuff (yielding a conversion of 2.26 pounds per length for a mile run at a pace that results in a time of 98 seconds), click here.

For the rest of the exercise, I’m going to use 1.4lbs per length for 2400m, and 1.75lbs per length for 1800m, which is a kind-of consensus between BHA and an Excel assisted extrapolation from 2lbs per length over 1600m.

Still with me? OK, let’s get into some form study, by looking at the last meeting beween Ovidio and A Time To Kill:

Kenilworth 1800m on 29 August 2015
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Ovidio 56.5kg 0 113
4th A Time to Kill 54kg 4.5 lengths 100

To calculate relative merit, multiply the distance beaten by the pounds-per-length conversion, and then add/subtract the difference in weights (expressed in lbs). Relative merit can be equated to ‘merit rating’, but I haven’t used that terminology here because I’m working with a small group of horses, not the entire racing population.

The form of this race suggests that Ovidio is 13lbs better than A Time To Kill. My message to Jono Snaith was prompted by the difference in weights in the Woolavington, in which Ovidio carried just 3kg (6.6lbs) more than A Time To Kill, making him the better handicapped of the two.

At the time, I thought that A Time To Kill had improved over the additional distance of the Settlers Trophy (he goes into this carrying the notional 100 rating from the race against Ovidio):

Durbanville 2400m on 26 September
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Arezzo 52kg 0 102
2nd A Time To Kill 52kg 1.25 100
3rd Friendly Tibbs 58kg 1.75 113
4th Forte de Ouro 52kg 2.15 99
5th Parachute Man 52.5kg 3.65 98
6th Paddy O’Reilly 64.5kg 4.4 123
7th Desert Swirl 58.5kg 6.4 109

To keep things simpler, I have rounded the decimals when calculating relative merit.

Right, so what did they do when they all raced against each other yesterday (I’ve carried Friendly Tibbs’ relative merit through, using him as the link horse here):

Kenilworth 2400m on 24 October
Pos Horse Wgt Beaten Relative Merit
1st Ovidio 55kg 0 110
2nd Desert Swirl 58kg 1.25 115
3rd Friendly Tibbs 57.5kg 2 113
4th Arezzo 52.5kg 2.2 101
5th Parachute Man 52kg 4.45 97
6th A Time To Kill 52kg 5.7 95
7th Zante 61kg 6.95 113

The suggestion is that A Time To Kill ran a bit below best yesterday, as well as Ovidio (marginally), but the result more-or-less stacks up with what the horses had done against each other previously, adjusted for weight differences. Perhaps Ovidio isn’t quite as good over 2400m as he is over 1800m. Time will tell.

Arezzo’s jockey thought that he was disadvantaged by a slowish pace down the back straight, as well as losing a shoe, but he finished more-or-less where expected, relative to Friendly Tibbs.

Anyone looking at the result of this race without taking the weights into account would deduce that Zante did not do anything significant. She was, after all, unplaced, finishing nearly seven lengths behind the winner. Under handicap conditions she’s likely to struggle until her official merit rating is reduced. However, the J&B Reserve Stayers, on J&B Met day, is a conditions race in which she’ll carry 55.5kg. Under that weight she’ll be much more competitive.

I find that stayers’ races (e.g. 2400m+) are fairly reliable from a handicapping perspective, because the horses are generally mature, and are therefore not prone to the rapid improvement one sees in young horses.

The analysis I’ve laid out above may look complex, but the point is that analysis/logic is possible. And, even if you aren’t gambling, it adds an entirely different dimension to a day at the races.

I’ve left weight-for-age out of the above analysis, which takes into account the improvement a horse makes as it matures, expressed as a difference in weights carried between horses of different ages. This varies according to distance run and time of year. I’ll do a separate post about this soon.


Oscar Foulkes September 19, 2015 Uncategorized No comments
When I joined Cloof late in 2002 it was an operation that almost exclusively sold bulk wine. I should add that this was transacted at a price that could not cover the costs of running the business. Providing a return on the capital invested was out of the question. The other notable feature of Cloof at that time was that Pinotage was the most planted grape variety on the farm.

If I had known how hard it would be to sell Pinotage I may well have decided against taking the job. Not since my days of attempting to shed bachelorhood have I been rejected as often as I was in those days. Despite the constant refrain that my ‘package’ (i.e. wine) was not up to scratch, I was very positive about blending Pinotage with Shiraz and Cinsaut.

For the 2005 vintage I worked with winemaker Christopher van Dieren in putting together just such a blend. A portion of the blend had been aged in barriques, with the result that the wine was a notch above what normally retailed at its price point. That vintage earned four stars from the Platter Guide, which was quite an accolade for a ‘cheapie’. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Especially when tasted from tank soon after the vintage, Cloof’s Pinotage has a colour so deep that I often called it “inky”. It wasn’t long before my brain populated itself with an entire brand concept, with “inky” as the starting point. Inkspot became the brand name, because Cloof is the spot where inky wines are made.

I further elaborated on the concept by calling the blend “Vin Noir”, thereby creating the world’s first black wine, to join vin rouge and vin blanc. When I briefed Nic Jooste for the label design, I told him that I wanted to use the printing process that creates a raised, glossy effect for the type, as if the ink is still wet. And, I said, I wanted to explore the possibility of creating an nibbed ink pen effect. Well, Nic knocked it out of the park, complete with ink splotches.

Inkspot became a vehicle for selling vast quantities of Pinotage, and has remained that since my departure from Cloof at the end of 2009.

I was delighted to discover earlier today that my creation was selected as a finalist in the 2015 ABSA Cape Blends competition, alongside nine other wines that sell for a LOT more money. Well done to the Cloof team!
(The video alongside was filmed during Rocking the Daisies, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year. I can still remember the moment when I received a mass email from the organisers, and my immediate response to Brian Little: “Yes, we’d love to host the event!” The rest, as they say, is history.)

Stranded by Standard

Oscar Foulkes September 14, 2015 Uncategorized No comments
Judging by the number of people calling in to CapeTalk about Standard Bank freezing their accounts as a result of FICA issues (South Africa’s version of ‘know your customer’), the bank has some serious admin problems.

My experience with Standard Bank’s admin comes as a result of dealing with my brother’s deceased estate. According to PSG Trust, the joint-executors of his estate, they sent originals of all relevant documentation to Standard Bank soon after being appointed (that was more than three months ago). Standard responded by couriering back the very documents that had been sent to them.

Yes, I know, it seems impossible, but they did.

Of course, PSG Trust sent them back, but Standard appeared to do nothing with them. Documents were then emailed, but still no action.

All the while, the money is sitting in an account that does not bear interest. In addition, there are monthly charges for holding the account. Fortunately, my sister-in-law and nephew are not in immediate need, but imagine the pickle they would have been in if they were relying on this money for their living expenses.

In frustration, last week I tweeted Standard Bank with a request to escalate the issue. In a series of direct messages I shared my brother’s ID number as well as my cell number. I was assured that I would be given assistance.

My follow-up messages were met with a stony silence.

I contacted them via direct message again this morning, to which they responded by asking if I had contacted the deceased estates department. Duh! I began the process by requesting that the matter get escalated. Why would I contact the very people who thus far have demonstrated no interest in getting the matter resolved?

It is inconceivable that it can take this long for Standard Bank to hand the credit balance over to the estate, not to mention monumentally frustrating that the bank is devoid of both a sense of urgency, or anyone willing to take responsibility. And, on top of that, to utterly disregard a concerned person’s plea for assistance when the regular channels have failed.

I have no doubt that this will eventually be resolved. What are the chances that Standard Bank will offer to compensate the interest that has been lost?

By all means, bank with Standard. Just make sure your money is elsewhere when you die. The admin problems could drive your heirs mad.

Millstock Cars is the most impressive team I’ve dealt with following my brother’s death. They’re a slick, professional outfit. Everything they’ve said they would do, they’ve done. And the admin has been brilliant!

Waking up to Whisky

Oscar Foulkes August 27, 2015 Uncategorized
A shared bottle of wine – usually red – is a standard feature of our household. Recently, however, we have taken our nightly drinks in a new direction.

It all started in May when I was involved in several gatherings (mini-wakes) following the death of my brother. Single malt was the drink of choice at all of these, leading me to state that coffins float into the hereafter on a river of whisky.

I found that I enjoyed the quiet sipping of whisky, and having ended up with some bottles at home, had a few evenings of replacing wine with whisky. Flavour, taste – call it what you want – has been a daily part of my life for over 20 years, and single malt has more than enough complexity to excite even the most jaded of palates.

I’ve learnt a few more things. Firstly, after a sip of single malt (assuming it’s drunk close to neat), the flavour hangs around the mouth for much longer than the aftertaste of wine. As a result, I find, a drink lasts much longer, which means that an evening can go by with much less alcohol getting consumed.

It’s far too easy, when a delicious bottle of wine is being drunk, to broach the second bottle, which isn’t great for productivity the following day!

The other thing I’ve discovered is that whisky is comparatively better value than wine. Using Johnnie Walker Black Label as the entry-level benchmark, a single tot costs around R9. This is not the same amount of absolute alcohol as a modest glass of wine, but one can stretch it to last the same length of time. It’s probably fairest to regard a double tot as equating to a glass of wine, in which case the cost of a drink is R18.

At current wine prices, that equates to a fairly average bottle of under-R100 red wine.

If you take the whisky up a notch, or two, to the lower tiers of single malt, a single tot/drink can be had for R15 to R20. And, you can have one fabulous drink without having to open an expensive bottle of wine.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this period of renewed interest in whisky has been accompanied by us (i.e. Dish Food & Social) doing a lot of development of dishes to pair with Three Ships whisky. It’s all been very stimulating.

I remain, predominantly, a wine drinker, but I am enjoying making my way through the world of good whisky.

(Similar calculations can be done in other markets, on the basis that a bottle of basic single malt is around five times the cost of a an above-average bottle of wine.)

Single Malt by Alvaro Calix on


Are Buffets Food Hell?

Oscar Foulkes February 4, 2015 Uncategorized
Floating somewhere in hell, perhaps being roasted over a hellish grill, is the soul of the first person who thought that buffet food service was a good idea. Even if this person is not in hell, the tens of thousands of chefs who rise in the middle of the night to prepare hotel breakfast buffets can’t be in happy space.

Hotel guests who would usually breakfast on just a cup of coffee and slice of toast, or an apple, or perhaps even a chocolate bar, will stuff their bodies with enough calories to feed an Ethiopian family for a week.

No comment on breakfast buffets is complete without mention – no, condemnation in the strongest terms – of the people who raid the buffet to make the sandwiches that will see them through lunch. Just this morning I watched a family pack an entire picnic!

I will concede that breakfast buffets at smart hotels – especially in Asia – can be spectacular, but more in the sense of over-the-top excess than the display of culinary genius.

In my opinion, the sole redeeming feature of a breakfast buffet is that it puts me in control of what I’m eating. I can choose what I want to eat, and in what quantity.

Buffets, of course, are also a mainstay of event catering, where people’s worst gluttonous excesses are in full force. The first few guests will inevitably grab all the good bits out of the salad (i.e. avocado), leaving just the leaves for the rest of the guests. Or, the same person who would normally eat two or three lamb chops at home, piles his plate with six or seven. Most regularly, one sees overloaded plates with fish next to meat next to chicken; a wide assortment of flavours that are not necessarily complementary.

Of course, if people served themselves with some dignity there would be plenty to go around. Rational, well-off people become locusts in the presence of a buffet.

I am sure there are top-class chefs putting on high quality buffets, but that doesn’t change the behaviour of the guests. And, I can’t imagine there are many chefs who have the same love for their buffet menu as they have for their a la carte menu.

Given the queues that we find ourselves in so often, I’m amazed at people’s tolerance of buffet queues. A bank or post office queue is not something with a finite end, like an aircraft departure for instance. One just has to stand in line along with everyone else and suck it up. On the other hand, instead of relaxing at the table, awaiting the dissipation of the queue, people jump up en masse the minute the buffet is declared open.

Dishes intended to be served cold or at room temperature can generally survive the buffet experience. However, hot food is often not quite hot enough, and it suffers from being kept at temperature for too long. It’s just not possible to simultaneously keep meat pink and hot, because it’s going to carry on cooking, ending that deathly shade of grey so often spied on carveries. Fish must finish cooking as it’s being carried to the table; it doesn’t tolerate being kept hot.

Aside from nutrition, the main reason for eating is to rejoice in the deliciousness of the dish, the celebration of great ingredients prepared with love and respect. Buffets are not the ideal space for doing this.

It’s no surprise that Michelin-starred restaurants do not offer buffets (there is a breakfast buffet in the one-star La Cuisine restaurant in the Hotel Le Royal Monceau, but I venture that the star was awarded for their a la carte lunch or dinner service).


Lost in Translation: All in a Day’s Work

Oscar Foulkes December 5, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
It’s important to be able to laugh during a workday. It’s less likely – if not outright undesirable – during a complex procedure requiring intense concentration. But, at some point in the day, it can be a big stress release to crack a smile, if not descend into an uncontrollable fit of screeching laughter.

One of my favourites, about 20 years ago, occurred when my uber-efficient assistant, Barbara, had written an order requiring a delivery to The Happy Rocking Gardens. Everyone was very confused, because no-one had any knowledge of such an establishment.

Eventually the penny dropped – in the Cape Town suburb, Gardens, there was a restaurant called The Happy Wok.

“This is the Happy Wok in Gardens, please could I place an order?” I can see how the mistake was made. We laughed about it for months afterwards.

So, yesterday I was checking on the baking and delivery of some macaroons for a client by the name of Faeeza. It is also relevant to the story that she works at Kenilworth racecourse, where we operate the Paddock Room (delivery was supposed to go to her office).

My first stop at Dish was in the pastry kitchen, where the pastry chef told me that they had been baked and were in the freezer. Nothing unusual here – macaroons are often baked in advance and frozen.

A bit later I went to the operations manager to check on the delivery. “Yes, no problem”, she said, “the driver is putting them into the freezer at Paddock Room”.

It was at this point that the freezer was featuring too prominently in the story. This was a hint, if not a big red flag, that everything was perhaps not going according to plan. Oh, and while Paddock Room is at Kenilworth racecourse, it’s not quite the same as delivering to Faeeza in person.

Notwithstanding the fact that the order – including client name and delivery address – appeared in black and white on an order sheet, the ‘broken telephone’ was to blame. Clearly, ‘Faeeza’ is phonetically just too close to ‘freezer’!

Fixing the mistake involved an extra trip, as well as someone’s time, but the stress-release of the uncontrolled laughter was worth it.


Betting on Teenagers

Oscar Foulkes August 2, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Gerry McIlroy, father of the 2014 Open Championship winner, Rory, is looking like a smart bettor. Ten years ago, when his son was just 15, he took a bet that Rory would win the Open before he turned 26.

At 500-1, the odds look generous, but were they really?

Rory was already a prodigy on the golf course, so much so that Gerry worked two jobs to fund his son’s amateur golfing. Barring injury, it was very likely that he would get at least one start in the Open. Let’s say that the odds of him competing at least once would have been around 5-1, perhaps shorter.

An outsider in the Open would be priced at something like 200-1. At the age of 15, he could therefore have been priced at 1000-1 for an Open victory before his 26th birthday (the two odds multiplied). On this basis, Ladbrokes’ 500-1 isn’t exactly generous.

On the other hand, if you take the view that if he’s good enough to get to the Open he’ll do it by the time he’s 20 (top golfers tend to be quite precocious these days). And, if he’s good enough to compete once he’ll manage a few attempts. In that case, the 1000-1 would need to be divided by the number of times he starts. By this reasoning 500-1 looks generous.

Rory played his first Open at the age of 18, which put Gerry on the right side of the value assessment.

Reports indicate that it is not unusual for bookmakers to get approached for similar bets. Amongst others, Ladbrokes laid bets – when Lewis Hamilton was just nine – that he would win an F1 race or would win the F1 championship.

When these bets pay out, the sums are generally large. In order for bookmakers to remain solvent, they need a steady stream of optimistic parents hoping to turn a couple of hundred into hundreds of thousands.

The publicity around Gerry McIlroy’s payday has a monetary value to Ladbrokes far greater than the payout. If nothing else, it will lure hopeful parents into similar bets.

Speaking as a parent, the money is a sideshow. I get emotional just watching my kids at school prize giving ceremonies. Ladbrokes would have been the last thing on his mind when Gerry saw Rory hoist the Claret Jug!


“You Learn to Make Do”

Oscar Foulkes July 15, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
Sometimes things seem so ‘big’ that anything written about them will just seem trite. For example, does the world need another person to declare the power of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics? I thought not.

Perhaps one day I’ll get around to a popular theme, which plays a key part in his songs Reason to Believe and The Promised Land. This is all about the little things that give us hope – the occasionally irrational belief that tomorrow will be better than today.

His references to blue-collar workers are dotted throughout his songs, for example, this line from The River: “for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”. You can see the need for hope of a better life!

During his concert in Cape Town in January 2014, which was a three- or four-hour immersion in a wide selection of his music, I heard Jack of All Trades for the first time.

I’ve never earned money by mowing lawns, mending roofs or cleaning gutters, as he sings in the song. But I know all about the circumstances – and emotions – of a man saying to his anxious wife “honey we’ll be all right”. There may not be any tangible reason to give him that belief, yet regardless of his own insecurity, the situation demands that strength of him.

The line that links everybody, I think, is this one: “So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do.”

Powerful stuff, whether you carry a union card at the age of 19, or your kids attend private schools.

(I couldn’t find an ‘official’ concert video, but this one gives a pretty good introduction.)

Thrust into the Social Media Limelight

Oscar Foulkes July 13, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
We’ve all been in situations where someone hauls out a camera, brings the impending snap to everyone’s attention, calls out “Cheese!” and then presses the button.

When this happened to me a few years ago in China, I thought I’d heard wrong, because the word sounded very similar to cheese. The word they used was “qie zi”, Mandarin for aubergine. What is it with food-related words and social snaps?

It all used to be relatively innocuous. The relatively recent shift from film to digital meant that people were less frugal about how many pics were snapped, and the results could be reviewed (or perhaps even deleted) instantly.

These days, the pics can be on multiple social media in seconds. So far, so good, assuming you’re in agreement that your drunken grin should be all over Facebook or Instagram.

My generation is ‘social media optional’. Large numbers of us are on social media, but many – for a variety of reasons – decided not to sign up. I’m thinking particularly of one couple that shows up quite regularly in my Facebook newsfeed. They aren’t tagged, of course, but there they are, cheerily holding wine glasses aloft as members of a celebratory group.

For the amount of screen time they get, they may as well have their own Facebook accounts.

These are people who chose to not sign up for Facebook accounts. Is it bad form to publish pictures in which non-Facebookers appear, without asking their permission?

Similarly, I have a friend who is on Facebook, but for professional reasons does not post – or appear in – any photos on the site.



The Meal That Kept On Giving

Oscar Foulkes July 9, 2014 Uncategorized No comments
A couple of years ago I posted a little piece about recycling leftovers, entitled Warm-Ups. I thought of this again last week, when we had a meal that just kept on giving.

It started with chickens that I liberally dressed with herbs, and then roasted on a bed of chopped leeks and carrots. When it came to service, the leeks and carrots were whizzed with some chicken stock to duty as a gloopy sauce. By way of greens we had sautéed courgettes and beans. I believe we also baked some sweet potatoes that we grew at home.

The chicken bones were reserved for making stock, which happened the following morning.

Far from being a culinary afterthought, the meal that appeared two nights later was so enjoyable that it deserves its own title: Roast chicken and caramelised leek & carrot risotto.

I started by chopping an onion, which was the only bit of traditional ‘prep’ that was done. I fried this, and then added the Arborio rice for a brief fry. From the fridge I grabbed a glass of rosé (for the pot). When the alcohol had evaporated I added chicken stock, followed by the remains of the leek and carrot ‘sauce’.

While this was in progress I roughly chopped some roast chicken leftovers, as well as the remains of the sautéed greens. When the rice was just about ready I added the chicken and veg to the pot to warm through.

I should mention that we ate this by the fire, while rain deluged and wind galed.


(Even if I say so myself)

This is how Chef Tiziano Muccitelli rocks a risotto with zucchini/courgettes (image source: 500px)