DIARY – CHELTENHAM – SATURDAY 13 DECEMBER 2008

 

Firstly I must explain how I got the opportunity to walk the course at Cheltenham with Choc Thornton.

It all started way back in May when I was surfing the internet to find articles about Choc, and I discovered the Jockeys’ Football website listing items from the 2007 charity auction, which took place on the same day as their annual charity football match.  The 2007 fixture had been affected by the summer flooding which closed Worcester racecourse, resulting in the match being transferred to a venue in Hereford. Anyway, I saw an item for tickets and lunch at Cheltenham, plus the opportunity to walk the course before racing with Choc Thornton.  So I immediately set my heart on winning the item, should it appear as a prize in the 2008 auction. 

So I kept an eye on the site throughout the summer and it was with delight that I noticed the auction item was being offered again this year, so I purchased tickets for Worcester’s Family Fun and Football Day scheduled for 7th September 2008, when the auction was due to take place in aid of the Wayne Burton Fund, and made arrangements to attend the fixture with my friend Lesley.

I was getting nervous as the day of the meeting approached, wondering if I would be brave enough to bid for the item and whether I could afford it too!  However, at the last moment, disaster struck and Worcester was flooded again and the fixture abandoned. Lesley was especially disappointed that the football match had been cancelled, me less so for the football, but very much so that the auction was cancelled too. I have to admit I couldn’t help feeling torn though, as Choc was riding at Fontwell Park that day, so would not have been available to play in the match.  The cloud did have a silver lining as we were able to divert to Fontwell Park to watch Choc ride.  However it put me in limbo as to the fate of the auction item I so desperately wanted to win. 

I don’t know whether it was luck or fate that I heard about the rescheduling of the auction.  I had kept an eye on the Jockeys’ Football site throughout September and October, wondering if there’d be any news.  However, I was watching Channel 4 Morning Line towards the end of October (which I’ve only started to watch regularly again since the start of the ‘main’ National Hunt season) when they mentioned the auction, which was now being organised by Worcester racecourse, details on the racecourse website.

I checked the site, and it instructed that bids should be made via letter or email, with a closing date of Monday 3rd November 2008.  A blind auction, so you just don’t know what the competition for the items will be. Never mind, I mulled it over and finally made my bid on Friday 31st October. Then off I went to Ascot races on 1st November and Huntingdon on 2nd November, keeping my fingers crossed that I’d be lucky.

I was getting nervous as the Tuesday approached, hoping desperately that I’d be lucky, but heard nothing so thought perhaps I’d failed. I was even a little tearful, as I was feeling so disappointed.  Then on Wednesday 5th November I travelled to Huntingdon races to see Choc ride and, whilst I was watching the first race from the grandstand (an amateur’s race) my mobile phone rang.  Very appropriately my phone’s ringtone is Any Dream Will Do.  As is my habit I left it to ring until it stopped, and then a voicemail message arrived. I looked at the number and my heart skipped a beat when I realised it was a Worcester number.  I left the stand and immediately called the number back, only to discover my bid had been successful. I couldn’t believe it!

But, not all dreams run smoothly, and the first hurdle was a 1-day ban for careless riding incurred, strangely enough, at the Huntingdon meeting I’d attended on Sunday 2nd November.  I had recalled an announcement for Alan King or his representative to report to the Weighing Room on the Sunday, a sure sign that there’s trouble afoot, but had thought nothing of it at the time. Riding bans come into force 14 days after the infringement, so Choc would be out of action on 16th November – the day of my visit to Cheltenham.  He did, however, decide to appeal against this ban, so when I phoned his valet, Phil, to make arrangements to meet up with Choc, they were in a positive mood that the ban would be overturned.  However, despite travelling to London on 13th November to make his appeal, the ban was upheld.

Initially he planned to come along to the meeting regardless, as he lives but a short distance from the course.  Then the day prior to the scheduled walk, I received a telephone call from Jenny, the Hospitality Manager at Worcester who had organised the auction, to say Choc had been called away and would not be available that day, so would I like to accept an alternative – either Choc at Worcester next summer, or perhaps a different jockey.  No, definitely not another jockey, and I presume I must have sounded disappointed that it might not be Cheltenham either. After all, Worcester is not quite Cheltenham – the home of National Hunt racing.  So it was agreed that I would purchase tickets for the next Cheltenham meeting – the Boylesports International – and let them know which day I’d be there so that I could still walk the course with Choc.  Subsequently, and very kindly, Choc said he’d organise the tickets for me once I’d decided upon which day I’d like to go - Saturday 13 December - and Lesley agreed to accompany me again.    

We were fortunate enough to still attend on Sunday 16th November, and my adventures that day are described in my diary for that date. And so now to my recollections of the day I got to walk the course at Cheltenham with the lovely Choc Thornton although, as I’m coming to expect, not everything went to plan!

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The first day of the Boylesports meeting, Friday 12th December, had been threatened by heavy frost, but the maintenance staff covered the course with protective sheets and it passed the early inspection, apart from the cross country course which had to be inspected again, but that also passed the later inspection, although a fence or two had to be omitted.  

Having written my blog, updated Choc’s winners’ log, and set the video recorders on Friday, I set my alarm clock for 04:30 on Saturday although, in the event, I was awake by 04:00 in nervous anticipation.  This gave me time to shower and wash my hair, apply make-up, and have breakfast before setting out to drive to Lesley’s house in a village west of Dunstable.  It was dark when I left home at 06:30, but barely raining.  As I had driven us to Cheltenham on 16th November, she offered to drive us on this occasion, although she borrowed her dad’s Ford Focus, as it was deemed to be more reliable than her own car.  

Once I’d transferred two pairs of Wellington boots to the Focus, we set off at around 07:10 for Cheltenham races.  It remained dark for quite some time, for far later than we had expected.  The rain had become heavier as I’d approached Bedfordshire and it became even worse as we drove west.  Our route took us to Aylesbury, Bicester, Oxford, then west along the A40 to Cheltenham.  I had been expecting the rain to clear as we crossed the Cotswolds, but it was still falling steadily as we approached the town, with a number of drains overflowing as we descended from the hills. 

When we arrived at the racecourse we parked near the coaches’ area, put on our Wellington boots and walked down the hill to the Owners and Trainers entrance.  Having phoned Phil, he was waiting outside, and took us across to the Weighing Room, which we entered via the back door. It was deserted apart from a number of valets, who had set out some of their charges’ equipment in preparation for the day’s racing.  We had already been told that a course inspection was to take place, and Phil took us through to the Weighing Room entrance to see if Choc had set off with the Clerk of the Course, JP McManus’ Racing Manager and Jonjo O’Neill. 

Luckily he was still there, so we were introduced.  He was wearing black waterproof trousers and jacket, green Wellington boots and a red baseball cap.  He carried with him a stick to test the going.  Once he’d set off with his companions, Phil offered us tea or coffee, which we accepted, and we went to sit in the Weighing Room, just opposite the alcove where Choc sits, beside Sam Thomas’ ‘spot’. 

I noticed Choc had worn a brown pinstripe suit to travel to the racecourse, which was hanging up on a peg.  His two saddles were hanging on the saddle rack above the bench – ‘Choc 1’ and the larger saddle.  I noticed a number of jockeys had three saddles. His breeches were hanging up, and to the side, his waterproof breeches too.  His shiny red-topped boots were on the bench, his brown shoes underneath, with a pair of shower clogs labelled Choc alongside them. Ruby Walsh’s kit was arranged above, on, and under the bench opposite Choc.

Ruby’s valet chatted with us for a while, whilst Phil searched around for razor blades in order to have a shave.  The general view from the Weighing Room was that the trainers and jockeys desperately wanted the meeting to be on, but they thought it was unlikely.  After some time had passed, Choc texted Phil with the word ‘OFF’ but he decided to wait until he got the news from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.  Ruby’s valet had already packed up Ruby’s gear as it was envisaged that Ruby would divert to Doncaster, rendezvousing with the valet at Warwick, but in the event they didn’t go.  Phil also packed up Choc’s riding gear into a ‘Lycetts’ holdall. Phil was to have walked with us, having brought his boots along, but was pleased that we were going to go with Choc alone. Lesley giggled when she saw pairs of ladies tights hanging on some of the pegs – which just proves it’s not a vicious rumour about a jockey’s undergarments!

Timmy Murphy also arrived, and spent a few minutes chatting to us too. He asked where we’d travelled from, and recommended some of the northern (such as Cartmel) and Scottish (such as Kelso) racecourses as being worth a visit, if we were to travel away for the weekend. He also said the new Weighing Room at Aintree lacked atmosphere. 

Anyway, Choc returned to the Weighing Room after the inspection and Phil offered him a drink, and both Lesley and I had one too.  Choc said he was very disappointed that racing had been abandoned as he’d lose his riding fees, plus of course a percentage of any winnings.  He would have had just five rides now, as Lingfield had already been abandoned with Warren Marston returning to take over the ride on Any Currency for Martin Keighley.   Phil pulled his leg that he was probably moaning because he’d now have to go Christmas shopping instead! 

Choc came to sit on the table opposite me and I asked how his injured foot was.  Much better thanks, although he’d aggravated it earlier in the week when he’d gone jogging to lose weight for a 10 stone ride!  He’d had it x-rayed and no bones were broken. Shortly afterwards we set off for our course walk.

We strode across the Parade Ring, and Choc asked if we wanted to go all the way.  We laughed, and Lesley said he shouldn’t ask questions like that ... I told her not to embarrass him.  As we reached the gate onto the course, I told him I’d been at Huntingdon on Thursday, and he said it wasn’t a good day for him.  No, I agreed. We spoke about My Way De Solzen’s loss of form and he said he thought it was probably due to French-bred horses maturing early and having success young, but then they didn’t necessarily train on.  We walked across the course, and up around the top bend.  We were to walk the ‘new’ course, which is the one used for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

I asked if Newbury was still his favourite course – no, Cheltenham is now, because he’s had so much success here.  Are there any courses he doesn’t like?  Fontwell Park as it’s a tight track, nor does he like their first hurdle down the back straight.  Plumpton is too tight. Folkestone because it is so far to travel by car from his home in Gloucestershire, worse than some of the northern tracks, which he can fly to.  He doesn’t like Towcester much either, as he’s not had much success there, he just doesn’t get on with the track. He doesn’t particularly like Fakenham, again too tight a track.

As we approached the first fence, he pointed out that it was dolled off from the inside rail making it quite narrow to approach.  We took a look at the take off side, and I noticed the front dressing is composed of plastic brown and green fronds, over a brown plastic mesh – the only course who uses this Choc told us.  How tall are the fences? Different sizes evidently, although they are supposed to be 4 foot 6 inches in height.  We stood behind a fence on the ‘new’ course but it was a good few inches smaller than the one we took a look at on the ‘old’ course.  The old course fence was only an inch or two shorter than Choc, who confirmed he is 5 foot 7 inches tall.

He showed us a picture of the Chair fence at Aintree, which he has stored on his mobile phone.  And we also spoke about the problems Sam Thomas had recently encountered with the media.  Choc said they’d not criticised him (Choc) when Twist Magic had fallen at Sandown Park last Saturday, so why did they keep on about Sam.  It wasn’t justified.

We took a look at the water jump and he explained that the lip has been modified to help prevent injury to horses if they drop their legs into the water.  I asked about the ‘strange’ water-jump at Huntingdon – yes, they called it a stretch fence now, with the water having been replaced by blue Astroturf!  (A faux water jump then.)

I asked him if he thought he’d have been a jockey if he’d not come from a hunting background.  He explained about his brother, who is three years older than him, having been frightened by ponies when introduced to them at too young an age.  Choc then had to beg his parents to let him learn to ride after that experience.  He’d wanted to be a jump jockey for as long as he could remember.  Later in our walk he explained that he’d been sent for an interview at Barry Hills’ yard, in order to get race riding experience, but he’d not got the job because he’d seemed likely to become too heavy (although only 8 stone 7 lbs at the time) and also because he had his heart set on a National Hunt career.

Then Choc saw a number of alpacas in a nearby field, saying he’d never noticed them before.  He thought they were llamas, but that’s an easy and common mistake to make. I told him about alpacas, explaining that I’d love to own some if I ever won the lottery, even though they appear a little ‘gay’!  Not for me he said.  I put down my umbrella as it had stopped raining by this time.

Lesley asked what he wanted to do when he retired from riding, which he thinks may be in around 5 years’ time, although he stated that the average retirement age for NH jockeys is around 30 (which he is now).  He wouldn’t wish to train racehorses as it’s too much of a financial risk.  It’s only viable with a wealthy patron behind you.  A career in broadcasting would be nice, but there may be a problem with so many well-known jockeys due to retire around the same time.  He wasn’t sure if he had the brains to do much.  I think it’s very sad that he should feel like that, and he shouldn’t put himself down.

He had got a little bit of a cold at the moment, but said he’d never missed a day’s racing because of the flu or a cold.  Although he did once ride My Way De Solzen in the Tolworth Hurdle when he (Choc) had flu and felt really rough afterwards!

He asked us if we were cold, no we were okay. He said sometimes he has to go out to ride with next to nothing on if he has to carry a very light weight.  I said I’d seen him ride Araldur at Sandown and he seemed to be a very nice prospect.  Yes, the horse had surprised everyone with its ability, as they’d only started him off in a moderate race at Bangor in mid-October.

He pointed out a flooded area close to the inside rail and said the ‘Inspection Committee’ had been worried that it would flood out onto the course if it continued to rain heavily.  We also took a look at the deep holes caused by the horses’ hooves on the take-off area in front of the third last fence.  There had been a suggestion to by-pass the fence if they could have moved back the adjacent hurdle. But unfortunately the crossover area had been badly churned up too during yesterday’s racing.  However, the course does drain quickly and will soon recover.

We took a look at the nearby hurdle and I asked if he preferred standard hurdles or fixed brush hurdles.  He thought they should have a set standard and all courses should use the same type, totally dispensing with the other.

We then went across to the notorious 2nd last fence on the ‘old’ course.  This is the one which claims the most fallers at any meeting.  He demonstrated that the ground rose just a few strides before the fence, the horses having galloped downhill to it. This meant they were on the forehand and the ground rises behind the fence, frequently catching them out.

He also spoke about the camaraderie in the Weighing Room and during a race.  During a race, if room is tight, they shout ahead and jockeys will move over to accommodate any following riders. Although occasionally there is gamesmanship, this is usually quickly forgotten.

He then took us across to look at a couple of cross country fences – a laurel hedge with rail, and the cheese wedges.  The former is easy to jump, provided you clear the front rail, but the first cheese wedge had a considerable drop on the landing side and then the horses had to jump up onto the top of the second wedge.  Choc said he liked the cross country races, it was just a few punters who were moaning that it was not a good betting heat – too much of a lottery.  But wasn’t the Grand National the same?  The spectators can get a close look at the action too, as they are allowed to move close to the fences.  He didn’t think these races should be shorter in distance when asked.  Alan King didn’t like to run his horses in them.  Unless they were currently jaded from racing I suggested – he agreed – as in Crystal D’Ainay’s case at the moment.

Could he eat a proper Christmas dinner this year, or most year’s for that matter.  Yes, he’d be okay provided he didn’t have to do too light a weight on Boxing Day.  He was able to eat Christmas lunch last year for instance.

Walk completed I asked if I could take some photos.  Yes, that would be fine, where would you like to take them?  By the winning post please.  So we walked up to the post, taking the photos by the old course finish (nearest to the stands).

I took two photos of Choc and Lesley, then having requested he remove his baseball cap as I wanted to capture the work in progress (ie. How his hair was growing), Lesley took a couple of shots of Choc and me.  He was worried about ‘hat hair’ though – bless!  He looked perfectly okay to me – very handsome in fact!!!  Having checked the photos were okay, we walked back towards the Weighing Room.

I asked if he would be watching the X-Factor final that evening, yes, although it was probably more his fiancée’s choice of programme.  He thought Alexandra would win (which she did), Diana having been eliminated in the semi-finals. We discovered he likes Snow Patrol (Diana having ‘murdered’ one of their songs).

He also mentioned going to watch the World Match Play darts and having met Ricky Hatton. He said the darts arena was very hot as they don’t have the air conditioning on because it affects the dart flights!  He had perspired so much that he needed to remove his shirt because it was wringing wet. He’s also been to watch Test Match cricket (at Trent Bridge I think he said).

I wished him luck with Voy Por Ustedes for Boxing Day at Kempton Park. He said the horse would be okay unless the ground was heavy. He was also concerned as to where Alan King could run Katchit prior to the Champion Hurdle (but perhaps the Boylesports Hurdle will be transferred to another course – although it might not suit the horse).     

We returned to the deserted Weighing Room where I thanked him for his time and said I’d really enjoyed our walk.  I gave him a peck on the cheek as we said goodbye, as did Lesley.  I also told him to take care.  He had been a wonderful host, and he’s such a nice guy too. And, as I write this diary (Sunday evening 14th December), I haven’t yet washed my right cheek!!! J

Then we left to return to the car, passing the stable blocks where a number of horses were being reloaded into their vehicles to return home after their abortive journeys. As it was before midday, we decided to go shopping in Cheltenham prior to returning home.  We found our way to the town centre, where we spent over 3 hours shopping, and I bought a pair of black ‘granny’ shoes in M & S – naughty, naughty!  We also tracked down a CD for Lesley’s son, Steve, to give to his dad for Christmas. 

We set off home at around 15:30, and the wet weather conditions commenced again as we headed east over the Cotwolds.  We also saw a number of huntsmen on horseback along the side of the A40 before we reached Burford.  It always surprises me how far it is to drive between Oxford and Cheltenham (and back again of course!).  We returned via Bicester and the A41 to Aylesbury, then headed back towards Lesley’s abode on the Buckinghamshire/Bedfordshire border, where I picked up my car to complete the journey home, arriving just after 18:00.

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