Heres the thing about the Boat Race, the thing that most people dont
get. Winning it has nothing to do with being the fastest crew.
Getting ahead gives you such an advantage it doesnt matter if youre
ultimately a quicker or slower crew over 4 miles. If you let the other
guy ahead by more than a couple of seconds youre probably going to
lose. Let him take your water and you need a miracle.
But you know nothing about the other crew. You have no idea how hard
youre going to need to work to stop him bolting ahead, except that
itll be a lot harder than youd like. You have no real idea just how
hard the other crew is racing, and they dont know that about you. All
you know is, you cant let them get ahead.
So the only real choice is to go off as hard as you can in the full
knowledge that you have seven*** minutes of rowing ahead of you.
See, its like a game of cards, and heres the thing with cards: you can
always win. Theres always a way of winning, you just dont know what it
is. Luck is in pretty short supply out there: the crew thats going to
win is the one that calls it right. I think only two or three times in
the past twenty races Ive thought dont really see how that one could
have come out different. Certainly weve had plenty of races where the
slower crew won from both sides. The other guy just didnt play his
cards well enough. And everything the weather, the umpire, the boat,
guys in the river - every little thing is something you can use to your
advantage. Or not. Take your pick. Its all part of the mix. This is
not a time trial, its a bare knuckle fight and winner is always the
better crew. Because they won.
Sooner or later youre going to lay down your best cards. The other guy
doesnt know if its really your best hand, and you dont know what hes
got. Maybe youve been clever and have a pretty good idea what hes got,
but you cant really know. What if he matches it? What are you going to
do now? And the other guys thinking: if hes got any more up his sleeve
Im ***ed. So what are you going to do? The next twenty seconds are
going to be win or lose. Maybe. Or maybe it wont make any difference at
So you watch and wait. And then you pounce. Or maybe you still wait,
wait for the other guy to implode. Its your call.
And if you get it wrong its going to stay with you forever. Youre
going to carry around the knowledge that you could have done it
differently, done it properly. And youre right.
Its that time of year when the people who dont get it come out in
force, and the irony is theyre mostly rowers. Not the people on the
bank, the crowds in the pubs and millions with half an eye on the tv.
The nuances of station and rig and stream might elude the casual viewer,
but if theyre paying any attention at all theres a sense of the
enormity of the struggle, and they keep coming back. No, the ones who
dont get it are rowers, grown used to the antiseptic world of getting
from here to there in what they hope is the fairest possible fashion who
bleat the old questions about why the crews never seem to care about
anything else and that its unfair and that their crew is faster and why
dont they come to my head race. And then go on to tell you what would
be a real test, and why this or that crew is so much faster than the two
universities. And the louder they shout the more they realise no-ones
So whos going to win? Well duh. Either of them could. For the first
time Ive actually seen both crews up close, so heres what you need to
Its not going to be the sort of day for sunbathing. But more
importantly theres a pretty good chance its going to be windy. Wind,
or the chance of it, can mess with your head. All those beautifully
practised strokes and now you can barely get all eight blades in the
water. But that fear makes wind a weapon. Of course tactically theres a
whole world of ways of using it on an open river, but heres where its
lethal: its the great get out clause. When youre sitting ? length down
and feeling you cant take another stroke youre going to use the
weather as the excuse. It was a lottery today youll say as you
clamber out of your boat, spent, soaked, defeated. But I can assure you:
not from where the victors are standing.
Ive said for the past decade that Middlesex is the new Surrey. There
comes a point where Surrey is just old news, and nows it. Theres a lot
less to station that sometimes implied about 1/3 length for Middlesex
over the first and last thirds of the race, and 2/3 length for Surrey
through the middle third. Which means, all other things being equal,
never more than a 1/3 length lead which isnt much. But who wouldnt
want to be on Middlesex coming under Barnes Bridge? Ill tell you: the
crew thats being rowed down. Theres a serious point: if you expect
your bend to give you more than it can, then youre going to be pretty
spooked when you dont get it. The bends are cards to play and you can
play them well and you can play them badly from the outside or the inside.
I cant remember the last time Cambridge lead off the start. I think it
may have been 1972. Its clearly a card they think they dont have to
play. Fair enough: what makes a difference is whether youre holding it
back because you have to or you want to, and Oxford have no way of
knowing. And this is how the race is going to play out: both crews have
some good plays, but its who deploys them at the best time, and who
keeps their nerve. These two crews are right at the top of the quality
scale of crews of recent times, but if you think you can tell whos
going to win just by looking at the way they row then youre way out of
So where should your money go? If the winds at the top end of
predictions theres a chance of a sinking: those pumps arent going to
be any use if a boat gets caught out. Not much of a chance , certainly
not worth the 7.2 you can get at Betfair. Reckon 20 would be nearer the
Dead heat? Aint going to happen.
But, Cambridge at 2.6? Take it. Bet the house. The whole lot. I can't
guarantee you'll win, but I can promise you'll get just a little bit of
what it feels like to be out there.