DIARY – CHELTENHAM – SATURDAY 24 JANUARY 2009
Having decided that my New Year’s resolution was to see Choc ride live at Cheltenham, I decided in early January to pre-purchase a ticket for the Trials Fixture. I had to keep my fingers crossed that the meeting would go ahead, as having got over the 10 day freeze which decimated the National Hunt calendar in England from 03 January, many other meetings were still being lost due to either water-logging or frost.
I set my alarm clock to wake me up at 05:40 so that I could wash my hair, apply makeup, check the internet and eat breakfast before setting off for Cheltenham, where the gates opened at 10:30. On my journey out, I would also need to fill up my car with petrol, having used ¼ tank to travel to Towcester last Sunday.
Although I was videotaping the Morning Line I decided to tune in at the start of the programme just to see who the guest would be ... and it was Choc. I had been thinking along those lines, so wasn’t in the least bit surprised! I watched for a few minutes, before packing my coat, shoes, fleece, gilet and bags into my car, setting off for the filling station at around 08:25.
Having topped-up with petrol, I joined the M25 motorway to drive anticlockwise around to the M40, then headed west towards Oxford. I left the motorway to join the Oxford ring-road, then the A40 to head across the Cotwolds to Cheltenham. The journey went well, the only slight holdups being a camper van trundling along the A40 out of Oxford, but that was soon overtaken once I reached the dual-carriageway and a lorry carrying hay or straw, and that turned left at the Burford roundabout. I can actually say that I enjoy the trip between Oxford and Cheltenham, especially now that I am beginning to recognise landmarks along the route. Although I much prefer to drive the route in daylight!
I arrived at the course just before 10:30, parking in the area just behind the coach park, although that was very wet underfoot. I decided to wait in my car for a while, drink a cup or three of black coffee, and eat a few pretzels (yes, I’m still addicted!). Whilst I was sitting there, I noticed a number of horses galloping up the all-weather strip beside the home straight – presumably that was part of the procedure relating to the Brightwells National Hunt Horse Auction which would take place after racing today. Finally I changed out of my driving shoes and into my walking shoes (tan coloured granny style) and made my way to the entrance within the Centaur building.
Having gone through the electronic entry barrier, I exited the building and walked down towards the Parade Ring area, stopping off on the way to visit the loo, and also taking the opportunity to wipe the car park ‘slush’ off my shoes. I then positioned myself opposite the Weighing Room, leaning against one of the small brick walls, and read through the race-card which I had just purchased.
The ‘new’ course was being used for racing today. Anyway, eventually it was time for the runners to enter the Parade Ring for the first race, a Novices’ Hurdle event, which had 6 runners. The favourite was Diamond Harry, who looked very lean and mean today, and had won the Challow Novices’ Hurdle impressively at Newbury on 29 December last.
Choc’s mount was Bensalem, a large attractive animal, also fancied to give a good account of himself. When the bell was rung to instruct the jockeys to mount, initially Choc and Alan walked towards the Weighing Room side of the paddock to leg him up. However, there was some confusion about whether the horses should exit yet, so they walked over to my side of the Ring instead, where Choc was legged up onto his mount.
Once Choc was on his way out to the course, I walked through under the stands and positioned myself next to the running rail, although some way from the winning post. Choc came out along the walkway, through the gap in the railings and cantered around the top bend to reach the course ‘spur’ which is the beginning of the 2 miles 4½ furlongs trip.
Tataniano led them off under Ruby Walsh, with Choc settled at the back on Bensalem. As they turned the far corner, Choc moved up into 5th place, and rode on the wide outside up the straight, presumably seeking the best ground, as did Diamond Harry and Shenanigan. Choc tracked Diamond Harry and went 3rd or 4th as they travelled down the far side. Talenti couldn’t keep up with the pace and slipped back to last place. By the time they were travelling down the hill, Choc was ahead of Diamond Harry, who made a slight error at the second last flight. He sent Bensalem into the lead, still on the wide outside as they entered the final straight, with Timmy Murphy switching to an inside line, so there was the total width of the course between them as they approached the final flight. They jumped this in unison, but Diamond Harry just had the greater turn of foot, and beat Choc aboard Bensalem by half a length at the line. However, I think Bensalem is still inexperienced and will improve from this run. The Donald McCain Junior trained Ernst Blofeld finished 3rd, with Tataniano in 4th.
I’m so accustomed to being in the General Admission section at a racecourse and unable to see the horses at close quarters as they walk back in, that I forgot Choc would be returning via the all weather track alongside the rail. So I prematurely set off to position myself on the steppings near the second place spot, to see Choc come back to the Winners’ Enclosure.
I recognised Donald McCain Junior when he was attending his charge in the Winners’ Enclosure, as Racing UK had been airing a programme about him late Friday and again early Saturday – presumably as there had been no racing highlights segment to broadcast due to Friday’s fixture at Newbury being abandoned because of water-logging.
Choc didn’t have a ride in the second race, a Novices’ Handicap Steeplechase. Again the race started in the ‘spur’, as it was a distance of roughly 2 miles and 5 furlongs. The mare, Ping Pong Sivola, trained by Venetia Williams and ridden by Aidan Coleman, led off and, despite hitting the 4th last fence, and being challenged by Tricky Trickster under Paddy Brennan as they turned into the final straight, galloped on well for an easy victory by 16 lengths. Second place went to Tricky Trickster, third was Camden George and fourth Kilcrea Asla.
Choc took over the ride in the 3rd race on Mister McGoldrick, the horses intended jockey Dominic Elsworth having been taken ill at Doncaster the previous day. There were 13 runners in this event, a 2 miles 5 furlongs Handicap Chase. He was riding for trainer Sue Smith, so Choc came into the paddock unsure of where to find the horse’s connections, so he looked rather lost, but eventually located them. Mister McGoldrick was held at the end of the paddock until Choc was ready to mount, and he then did one circuit of the Parade Ring before exiting down the walkway. Again the race was commencing in the ‘spur’, so the runners walked a short distance up the all weather track before crossing the run-in, and continuing along the all-weather surface around the top bend.
When the race began, three horses led off in front, The Sawyer on the inside, Turko in the centre and Mister McGoldrick on the outside. Battlecry and Pablo Du Charmil were prominent too. Turko was the first to lose his place, and Mister McGoldrick was awkward at the water-jump landing on all fours. Choc held his position until he reached the 3rd last, when he was overtaken by Too Forward, Battlecry and Moon Over Miami. The Sawyer was still going well in front, and held off all his challengers, including Akilak as he galloped to the line. The winning jockey was William Kennedy. Once Choc had realised his horse wasn’t going to get home, he looked behind to ensure he didn’t impede any rivals and pulled the horse up. Choc exited the course close to the paddock walkway, so I walked back to the Parade Ring to see the winner return, and I could also see Choc unsaddle in the small subsidiary paddock to the side of the Weighing Room.
The next race was the Letheby and Christopher Steeplechase (Cotswold Chase) over a distance of 3 miles and 1½ furlongs. Choc’s mount in this event was Halcon Genelardais and, as it was not a handicap event, he was favourite to win. Halcon was mounted over the far corner of the Parade Ring and exited immediately down the walkway to the course. I walked through to view from the rails but, as the event started halfway up the straight, he headed away from the stands to canter down the all-weather track.
When the race commenced, Choc again sought the best ground on the wide outside for his mount, and was lying in 6th place. He had to reach for the first fence and was given a reminder. Ollie Magern and Joe Lively were out in front. Tidal Bay made a bad mistake at the fence before the water, and wasn’t ‘foot-perfect’ at that fence either. Halcon moved up to take 3rd position, still on the wide outside. Ollie Magern dropped back fairly quickly but Joe Lively continued to lead, with Tidal Bay taking second position.
Halcon had to be ridden along as they turned down the back straight for the second time, but he did move up to 2nd place. More reminders were administered at the far corner. As they came down the hill and turned into the final straight, Star de Mohaison under Barry Geraghty looked full of running but his challenge soon petered out. Joe Lively made a bad mistake at the 2nd last, which enabled Halcon to take the lead. However, Joe Lively renewed his challenge and took the lead on the run-in to win. Halcon finished second, with Tidal Bay in third, Star de Mohaison came in fourth, with Ollie Magern the only other finisher in 5th.
I again walked through under the grandstand to reach the Winners’ Enclosure. I spotted Meally and companions heading for the steppings to welcome Choc back. She was wearing a yellow coat, so I guess she has treated herself to a ‘fashionable bright coloured coat’ as she promised she might in her Eclipse diary entry last October!
Alan King later reported that he was very disappointed with Halcon’s run.
Choc’s fourth ride of the day was aboard Walkon in the 2 miles 1 furlong Novices’ Hurdle (a trial for March’s Triumph Hurdle). Walkon is a grey horse, with a very sparse tail! As the start was at the beginning of the home straight, Choc again exited the paddock and turned left once he’d reached the course to canter down the all-weather strip.
Having earlier walked the course, Choc knew that the best ground was on the wide outside, so once again he rode his mount close to the nearside rails, this time in 6th place. Nampour took the lead, although he made a bad mistake in the back straight. As the field travelled down the back straight Walkon moved up into 3rd position, still taking an outside line. As the horses came down the hill Blues in Cee took up the running, and Walkon took over as they came around the final bend. He was followed up the straight by Reve De Silova, who challenged but was held by a length and a quarter at the line. Walkon is a very exciting prospect, and is now 2nd favourite for the Triumph Hurdle behind Zaynar. Alan King was very pleased with his charge.
I decided to walk over and wait beside the walkway (as opposed to the all-weather strip) for Choc to ride back in, then I set off for the Winners’ Enclosure. As the steppings were already quite crowded I had to walk around to the farthest section before being able to find a suitable spot to take photographs. I had missed him actually entering the Enclosure, but had plenty of time to take other shots. Once he’d had his official photograph taken with the horse and the connections, he strode off to the Weighing Room to weigh in and change. Meally was again there to support her man.
Shortly afterwards, having weighed out, he appeared with his saddle ready for Alan to collect for his next mount. He stood outside the Weighing Room for a short while, before trotting around to the centre entry point to the Winners’ Enclosure, where he was waylaid to do a brief interview. He was then called up to the Winners’ Podium, where he was presented with a bottle of champagne and had his photograph taken with the owners. Afterwards he was called over to take part in an interview with Alistair Down for Channel 4 Racing.
The jockeys had already appeared in the Parade Ring for the next race by the time Choc had completed his interview, so he had to collect his helmet and whip before coming out again to meet up with Blazing Bailey’s owners and Alan. This race was the Cleeve Hurdle, over a distance of 3 miles, with 8 runners competing. Blazing Bailey was wearing blinkers again today, although Alan stated that he believes they may have little or no effect on the horse.
The 3 mile start is located at the beginning of the back straight therefore Choc rode up the all-weather strip, through the break in the rails, across the grass to join the all-weather strip up and around the top bend. Once the race had started, Pettifour and Fair Along were sent into the lead, Choc was on the outside of the field in 4th or 5th place. At the back of the pack were Lough Derg, Punchestowns and Big Buck’s. Blazing Bailey had dropped back into 6th place as they galloped up the straight for the first time, but he took closer order as they travelled down the back straight again, as did Lough Derg.
Blazing Bailey was in 2nd position as they jumped the second last flight, however Punchestowns, Fair Along and Big Buck’s were all going far better as they turned into the straight and Blazing Bailey dropped out at this point to finish 6th. Big Buck’s went on to win, with Punchestowns 2nd, and Fair Along 3rd, having made a mistake at the last. Lough Derg finished in 4th position.
I waited by the rails to see Choc ride back along the all-weather strip, before returning to the Parade Ring, from where I could see Choc unsaddle in the auxiliary paddock. Unfortunately he didn’t have time to sign autographs when he’d finished speaking to connections, as he was running late for the 7th and final race of the day.
Choc’s ride in the final race was King’s Revenge, who was wearing blinkers as usual. It was a Handicap Hurdle over a distance of approximately 2 miles and 1 furlong, with 15 runners. Charlie Huxley had again retained the ride aboard Awesome George, who is a bonny little horse and was on his toes as he walked around the Parade Ring.
Again once Choc had reached the course, he headed off down the all-weather track at the side of the home straight. There was some confusion when the horses were lining up for the start, as it was suddenly realised that the Starting Official hadn’t yet climbed the steps, so they had to line up all over again.
Once they were off, Choc took an outside line, with Awesome George following close behind him. Jazz Musician flattened an early flight, almost coming to grief. Down the back straight King’s Revenge travelled in 3rd place. Spear Thistle made a bad mistake, as did Laustra Bad at the next. Presenting Copper was leading the field. At the end of the back straight King’s Revenge began to lose his pitch. Awesome George was still well in touch. Freeloader ridden by Denis O’Regan, fell at the second last. The horse must have been injured as despite getting up and attempting to follow the field, he hobbled to a standstill. Green screens were later erected around the horse.
Awesome George was in 3rd place as he entered the straight and jumped the last flight alongside Presenting Copper. He got his head in front but Richard Johnson drove his very game mare out to win. King’s Revenge, having weakened some distance out, completed in 13th position.
I remained beside the course-side railings for Choc to ride back along the all-weather track, he was chatting to Seamus Durack as he passed. I walked back to the Parade Ring, mainly to see Choc return as opposed to watching the winner and placed horses enter the Winners’ Enclosure, and noticed that Choc did spend time signing autographs for his fans once he’d unsaddled his mount, it being the final race of the day and him now having plenty of time to do so.
Once Choc had disappeared inside the Weighing Room I knew it was time to set off for home. However, having walked back to collect my car, I discovered a long queue of traffic waiting to exit the course. I removed my coat, gillet and fleece, and also changed out of my very dirty shoes. I decided to make myself at home, so I almost finished my thermos of black coffee, ate some more pretzels and a Snickers bar. It was fairly cold inside the vehicle, so I decided to put my fleece back on, but still waited until the end of the queue was in sight before starting my drive home. It was 17:30. As I drove out, horses destined for the sale were being paraded up and down beside the stable area.
I turned left out of the entrance, and the road was clear until shortly before the mini-roundabout, where I turned right, then a left, all this time still in a queue of traffic. I was queuing all the way to the traffic lights where I turned left onto the A40. I was again held up through Charlton Kings, but once the road had cleared ahead of me, the journey home was very good. I decided to retrace my route around Oxford, and back via the M40 and M25 to Hertfordshire, arriving home at 08:00.
I cleaned my shoes, charged my camera battery, wrote my blog and watched The Morning Line and Choc’s interview with Alistair Down before turning in for the night.