DIARY – CHELTENHAM – SUNDAY 16 NOVEMBER 2008
There is a long story associated with my first visit to Cheltenham racecourse on 16 November 2008, and the tale is not finished yet! However, I promise to explain the background in my diary entry for Saturday 13 December 2008.
As Choc was no longer available on this day for our racecourse walk, I decided that I could leave home between 08:15 and 08:30, travelling via Bedfordshire to pick up my friend, Lesley, from her new house. Then just before I left, Jenny (the Hospitality Manager from Worcester), texted me to say that if we arrived at the course in good time, Phil Taylor (Choc’s valet) would give us a brief tour of the Weighing Room.
I drove to Lesley’s house, my route taking me up the A5 and through Dunstable. It was my first visit to her new abode, but my radar was functioning well as I found her house with no difficulty whatsoever – and I don’t have satellite navigation either! We then set out for Cheltenham. Our route took us via the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard, through Wing to Aylesbury, then along the A41 to Bicester and down the A34 towards Oxford. We joined the A40, travelling all the way to Cheltenham. My first ‘route’ panic occurred as traffic became heavy on the outskirts of the town, although I knew the course was in a northerly direction from there, so I needn’t have worried as, not unsurprisingly, it was well sign-posted.
We found a spot to park, within the racecourse grounds, and then reported to the reception area to pick up our tickets. Then it was time to locate the Weighing Room, which was very obvious once you were Parade Ring side. By this time there was heavy drizzle and the top of Cleeve Hill had disappeared into the mist. We reported to the stewards ‘guarding’ the entrance to the Weighing Room, and I asked if I could see Phil Taylor please. One of the guys went to fetch him. He came out to introduce himself, then went back to check if it was okay for us to go inside – he probably had to shoo some semi-naked jockeys into the sauna!!! He then came back and took us inside, where we noticed AP and Graham Lee.
He took us over to the bench where Choc always sits, his name label on the peg above his head. The names of their notable winners are also written beside each jockey’s name. He also pointed out Sam Thomas’ and Denman’s name above an area on the ‘island’ bench to Choc’s left. In Choc’s alcove, he also pointed out the name plate of jockey Kieran Kelly, who was fatally injured in a fall at Kilbeggan in Ireland back in 2003.
Phil also mentioned that Ruby Walsh was in hospital, as his spleen had been ruptured following yesterday’s fall. The organ had been removed during surgery on Saturday night, and Ruby would now need to take antibiotics for the remainder of his life. The spleen playing a vital role as part of the immune system. He also gave us a tip for the first race, Tatenen, which would now be ridden by Ruby’s deputy, Sam Thomas.
Phil explained that, in a reciprocal arrangement, he looked after other jockeys when they visited one of his local courses, as their own valet would be on duty at a different course. In other words, Choc would be looked after by someone else’s valet when Phil was not available. I spoke about the mileage involved when travelling the racecourse circuit, for jockeys and valets alike. He told us that he drove around 70,000 miles a year!
Visit over, I made arrangements to telephone him a couple of days before the next Cheltenham meeting, so that tickets could be arranged for us to collect, and also to agree a time and place to meet up with Choc for our promised course walk. Phil mentioned that a cricket bowling competition would be taking place in the Parade Ring at around midday, so we made a note to attend that. We then went for a look around the Retail Village, and to locate the entrance to the Gold Cup restaurant in preparation for our lunch.
At around midday we returned to the Parade Ring to watch 3 teams take part in the bowling competition. One team consisted of local football players, the second represented the Weighing Room and was captained by Sam Thomas, the team members included Phil, ex-jockey now valet Chris Maude, and Graham Piper (who had taken part in the slave auction). The final team represented international cricket and the rest of the world, with Peter Scudamore and his son, racehorse trainer, Michael, in the team.
The three rounds of the competition having been completed, and a number of dangerous balls bowled, the footballers finished last, the Weighing Room team runners-up and the Rest of the World team with its international players, won. Phil had scored for his team and Peter Scudamore and his son were useful bowlers too, having both scored.
It was then time for lunch. We found our way to the restaurant, although it was through the back entrance rather than through the more welcoming Hall of Fame corridor! Once seated, we had coffee/tea, and then ordered our starters. Mine was the brie. We both had the roast beef dinner, and the same chocolate fondant and cream dessert. Then another tea/coffee at the end of the meal.
We had missed the first race, although we viewed it on screen inside the restaurant. It was won by Phil’s tip, although it was a very short odds-on favourite and there were only 4 runners. We exited via the Hall of Fame corridor this time, and walked down beside the Parade Ring to reach the area in front of the stands to watch the 2nd race, which had just commenced. With the ups and downs of racing, Sam Thomas’ mount either fell or unseated him shortly after the off. The rain had stopped by this time.
Once the race was completed we returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to watch the victor unsaddle, and then stayed to see the runners for the next event, the big race of the day, the Greatwood Hurdle. Alan King had two runners in the race, so I advised Lesley to do an each-way bet on both Squadron and King’s Revenge. As it turned out, the latter just beat the former into 4th place, so she claimed her each-way win on King’s Revenge (at longer odds) but lost out on Squadron as there were too few runners – a number of horses having been withdrawn due to the ground conditions. For this and the following 3 races we positioned ourselves down by the rails to get close to the action.
By the time the 4th race arrived, I decided that I needed to have a flutter. Lesley had an each way bet on a ‘cricket themed’ Irish raider and Pennek, Alan King’s first runner. I decided upon Nikos Extra each-way, who I’d seen win under Choc at Kempton Park in October. It was a good call as my runner finished 4th, and there were sufficient runners for me to claim my £3.60 winnings plus stake.
Alan also had a runner in the 5th race, so I put £2 to win on Dragon Eye, but he finished 3rd. Still, as I didn’t bet on the last race, I came away with £1.60 profit!
The last race was a NH flat race, and it was won by Irish amateur, Mr Barry Connell, who appears to have cult status among the racing fraternity!
The light was fading and it was time to go home. We passed the stall where Mick Fitzgerald was signing copies of his autobiography ‘Better than Sex’. Unfortunately I’ve already bought a copy, which had arrived Saturday, so I didn’t need a second one.
We returned to the car park and set off for home. The signposts for London took us via a slightly different route but we soon rejoined the road out of Prestbury, although the heavy traffic held us up until we were on the outskirts of Cheltenham. Our trip along the A40 to Oxford went well, apart from a hold-up where a dual carriageway narrowed to single line traffic. We took the A34 to Bicester, around its bypass, and along the A41 towards Aylesbury.
Unfortunately there had been an accident at Kingswood, with an ambulance and police cars in attendance. It would seem that the road signs warning to take care along this stretch of the road have little effect. I presume the problem lies in the fact that for much of its distance the road runs along the route of an old Roman road, so it is very straight and drivers get over confident. Cars overtook us without having a clear view of the road ahead, despite having just witnessed this accident. Some people just never learn.
We arrived safely at Aylesbury and again took the road towards Wing and Leighton Buzzard. Admittedly I didn’t drive fast along this stretch of the road, as I’ve only travelled along it a few times before, so we had cars queuing up behind us.
Having travelled around the bypass at Leighton Buzzard, we drove into the open countryside again and headed Lesley’s home village. Luckily I could vaguely recall my outward journey and Lesley was on-hand to ensure I took the correct route down the country lanes. I dropped Lesley off and returned via Tottenhoe to Dunstable and down the A5 to home, arriving around 19:30.
We really enjoyed our day, and have a promise from Choc that he will walk us around Cheltenham racecourse on Saturday 13 December, fate permitting.