Cheltenham – Saturday 28 January 2012
Festival Trials Day
Sunny Cheltenham, with Cleeve Hill in the background
Having not been to the races since Boxing Day, and with the forecasters issuing warnings of bad weather on the horizon, I decided to take a trip to Cheltenham for their Festival Trials Day. Choc was still on the sidelines having sustained a broken arm at Hereford on 11 December; although he was due to see his surgeon on 02 February with the hope of returning to race riding in the very near future. However, at this point in time, Choc had already been riding out and schooling for a couple of weeks.
‘Super-sub’ jockey, Wayne Hutchinson, had certainly been making hay whilst Choc was absent. Having won Aintree’s Beecher Chase aboard West End Rocker prior to Choc being injured, Wayne had subsequently won the Ladbrokes Hurdle at Ascot aboard Raya Star; he followed this up with a victory aboard Hold On Julio in a valuable Handicap Chase at Sandown Park in early January; then he rode a double at Ascot which included the Grade 2 Limited Handicap Hurdle aboard Smad Place. With the Alan King yard in top form, there had to be the possibility of more winners from today’s five runners – Grumeti, Bless The Wings, Araldur, Secret Edge and Batonnier; although the latter two were competing in the same race so Wayne Hutchinson would ride Batonnier.
With my recent weight gains, which I must put down to the ongoing breathing problems I had experienced since May 2011, my choice of clothing to wear when attending the races was diminishing. Nearly all my skirts are now tight, and most of my trousers won’t do up because of my huge stomach. I feel like a beached whale. Arghhhhhhhhhhhh! As I write this diary, my sinus operation is planned for 19 April; I can’t wait, it will be wonderful to be able to breathe properly again. Hopefully I can then exercise more, and be able to give up the endless peppermints and sweets I’m consuming to counteract the ‘post nasal drip’. Yes, it’s as yucky as it sounds!
Anyway, I decided upon my long black handkerchief hem skirt which, fortunately, still fitted me. A thermal vest, a long sleeved thermal vest, cerise pink frilly edged cardigan, black frill edge cardigan, purple fleece, burgundy cardigan, purple tights, ‘engineer’ boots, black faux sheepskin jacket and wrist warmers. Plus my violet hand-knitted ‘Snowball’ scarf.
Gates opened at 11:00, so I needed to leave home between 08:30 and 09:00 to reach the course around opening time. Having woken at 06:45, I showered, washed and dried my hair, ate breakfast, applied make-up, watched part of Channel 4’s The Morning Line, with special guest, Tom Scudamore, before setting out at 08:40. Cheltenham had covered their course to prevent against frost damage; in the event temperatures hadn’t dropped that low. It was 4 degrees when I set off from home; the temperature gauge in my car remained pretty stable throughout my outbound and return journey.
My route took me to Junction 21A of the M25 and anti-clockwise to the M40; I then headed along the westbound carriageway towards Oxford, it was a little misty through the Chilterns. After travelling around the Oxford bypass I took the A40 and headed into the Cotswolds. The traffic moved smoothly, apart from just west of Burford, when two horseboxes slowed down the flow, travelling at around 40 mph. Luckily, after not too many miles, they both turned off to the left, leaving the road clear. If they had been transporting racehorses they would have travelled much faster! I’m always amazed at how fast some boxes can travel, but I suppose it’s because the horses have a leg at each corner making them far more stable, unlike humans!!!
The remainder of the journey went smoothly; I recall there was a group of five horse-riders on the road into Charlton Kings, so I slowed down to drive past them. Strangely, there was another horse and rider trotting out of Cheltenham, on the road just before the Six Ways junction. I took my usual inbound route to the course, turning right onto Hales Road, past the ‘longabout’ and along Bouncers Lane towards Prestbury. My journey then took me along Tatchley Lane and New Barn Lane, at the end of which I took the Evesham Road and turned into the car park on the left. It would probably have been easier to go straight across the roundabout outside the racecourse and into Swindon Lane to enter the car park ... but I didn’t on this occasion. It was 10:50.
Having parked up, I put on my boots and coat and set off to the entrance, crossing the very busy Evesham Road in the process.
To ease congestion inside the Centaur building, the ticket kiosks were located on the ‘bridge’ outside. I joined the back of the queue and, as I was paying by credit card on this occasion (although I usually pay for my tickets using cash), I was permitted to jump the queue, as the ‘credit card’ ticket vending window was far less busy. Having purchased a ticket I entered the Centaur to go through the turnstiles and then headed down the concourse to buy a race-card (£3); nipping to the ladies loo on the way.
It was bright and sunny in Cheltenham, although cold. After standing beside the Parade Ring for a few minutes, I then walked through the passageway beneath the stands to reach the course-side rails, where I remained for around half an hour, basking in the sunshine and soaking up the atmosphere. It was good to return to Cheltenham for the first time this season and to reacquaint myself with the course. I then returned to the Parade Ring, where I remained until the competitors arrived ahead of the first race.
I returned to the course-side rails in plenty of time to find a suitable vantage point, and in preparation for the horses to canter up the all-weather track before they headed back down to the start at the far end of the home straight.
Race 1 was the Grade 2 JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial for Juveniles (4-year-olds) over a distance of 2 miles and approximately one furlong. The Alan King runner in this race was Grumeti, owned by the McNeill Family and ridden by Wayne Hutchison. Grumeti had been purchased to replace the ill-fated Mille Chief, who had lost his life in October after breaking a leg on the gallops.
Just 6 runners, but a very exciting finish; with the Ruby Walsh ridden Pearl Swan just getting the better of Grumeti by a short-head at the line.
I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to see the horses arrive back; I actually followed the McNeills back through the passageway under the stands, as they had been watching the race from the Owners and Trainers area. However, the claxon sounded ... a Stewards Enquiry was announced. The longer we waited for the verdict, the more likely a revised result seemed likely ... and, yes, it was finally announced that Grumeti had been awarded the race! Max McNeill appeared delighted; Alan King spoke briefly to the Paul Nicholls team to offer his commiserations.
From the head-on camera it was very apparent that Ruby’s mount had drifted across towards the stand-side rail and had bumped into Grumeti in the process. With the narrowest of margins between the two protagonists at the line, the Stewards had no option but to reverse the result. They gave Ruby a three day ban for careless riding too ... he was not happy.
The vanquished team disappeared from the Parade Ring and the McNeills went to the podium to accept their prize.
Before the horses left the Parade Ring ahead of the next race, I headed down to the course-side rails once more.
Race 2 was a Novices’ Handicap Steeplechase over a distance of 2 miles and approximately 5 furlongs. Alan King’s runner in this event was Bless The Wings; 16 horses went to post.
It was a very eventful race, with three unseated jockeys and three fallers, including Ruby Walsh’s mount, That’lldoboy. However, Bless The Wings jumped immaculately and won by 2½ lengths.
Sadly Mr Chow, who completed in 9th place, struck into himself during the race and, as the damage was severe, he was put down.
Once again I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to see the horses arrive back before returning to the course-side rails.
Race 3 was the Grade 3 Murphy Group Handicap Steeplechase over a distance of 2 miles and approximately 5 furlongs. Alan King’s runner in this event was Araldur, the horse aboard which Choc rode his 1000th career winner at Towcester last March.
The David Bridgwater trained The Giant Bolster made all to win by 17 lengths; the winning jockey being Tom Scudamore. The horse had finally got his act together over fences, having failed to complete on a number of occasions in the past.
As Araldur had finished in 6th place, there was no need for me to return to the Winners’ Enclosure after the race. I therefore took this opportunity to cross the racecourse to enjoy a different vantage point for the next event. The only other time that I ever cross over to the area in the centre of the racecourse is during the Cross Country Chase on Day 1 of the Festival.
Race 4 was the Grade 2 Argento Steeplechase; a trial for the Cheltenham Gold Cup over a distance of 3 miles and approximately 1½ furlongs. There were nine runners, the Philip Hobbs representative, Captain Chris, cantering to the start a few minutes after the other horses. The Martin Keighley trained Any Currency was one of the competitors.
The race was won by Midnight Chase, having made all. The horse enjoys making the running and loves Cheltenham too. Captain Chris made a number of bad mistakes, jumping severely out to his right and was pulled up before the 8th fence. Ruby Walsh finished 2¾ lengths 2nd on the enigmatic Tidal Bay. Joint favourites Time For Rupert and Diamond Harry finished 4th and 5th respectively; Any Currency completed in 7th.
Having been delayed by the return across the racecourse, with the public not being permitted to cross when there are horses in the vicinity due to health and safety issues, I didn’t make it to the Winners’ Enclosure on this occasion, but returned to my vantage point beside the rails on the lawn in front of the Royal Box.
Race 5 was the Grade 2 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle race over a distance of 2 miles and approximately 4½ furlongs. Alan King had two runners in this race, Batonnier ridden by Wayne Hutchinson and the 4-year-old Secret Edge, ridden by Charlie Huxley. Martin Keighley’s runner was Hard To Swallow.
Batonnier won by 3 lengths, Secret Edge finished 3rd and Hard to Swallow 4th. A treble on the day for Alan King and Wayne Hutchinson ... poor Choc, he’d missed 3 more Saturday winners.
I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to see the horses arrive back, and to watch the horses in the Parade Ring ahead of the next race, in which Big Buck’s was one of the 6 runners. There was spontaneous applause as the Paul Nicholls trained star paraded around.
I returned to the course-side rails to watch the race.
Race 6 was the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle over a distance of approximately 3 miles.
Across The Bay led the field away, with Restless Harry taking over 3 out. Dynaste was then sent into the lead and it appeared as they turned into the home straight that he might have stolen the race ... but, as usual, Ruby ‘stoked up’ Big Buck’s to challenge approaching the last and galloped on to win by an easy 7 lengths. Big Buck’s 15th consecutive win.
I returned to the steps above the Winners’ Enclosure to see the horses arrive back. The biggest crowd of the day had gathered; there was much applause as Ruby and his mount entered the Enclosure, and again as Big Buck’s was led back to the stables for a well deserved rest.
I returned to the course-side rails for the final time today.
Race 7 was a Handicap Hurdle race over a distance of 2 miles and approximately 1 furlong; 14 runners.
The race was won by the Tom George trained Module, ridden by Paddy Brennan.
I walked back to the Winners’ Enclosure to see the horses arrive back before setting off to collect my car; spending a penny first, always a good idea, as it would take over two hours to reach home.
After crossing the Evesham Road, a group of lads had a laugh and a joke with me; one of them admiring my violet scarf. He jokingly offered me £10 for it; I told him I couldn’t part with it, as I’d knitted it myself. His retort was to offer me £100; yeah, right!
When I got back to my car I ate the cheese rolls I’d brought with me; that would keep the wolf from the door during my long journey back to Hertfordshire.
I turned on the car engine and set off for home at exactly 17:00. Having parked in the field immediately adjacent to the one where I’m usually directed to park during the Festival, I decided to turn right when I exited onto Swindon Lane and travel down Tommy Taylors Lane to reach St Paul’s Road. However, there is one drawback when driving along the latter thoroughfare ... parked cars make the road width too narrow for cars to pass in both directions at the same time. Having eventually negotiated the obstacles, I reached Clarence Square and the traffic lights on Portland Street/Evesham Road.
To avoid any traffic delays when trying to reach the A40, I headed up Prestbury Road, turning right at the roundabout to reach Pittville Circus, before turning into Pittville Circus Road. A left turn onto Hewlett Road took me back to the ‘longabout’ at the northern end of Hales Road. I then headed up Harp Hill, where there’s a wonderful view over Cheltenham if you gaze to the left, before turning right into Greenway Lane. There are two or three traffic calming ‘chicanes’ along this stretch, priority being against me, presumably because vehicles travelling in the opposite direction are travelling uphill.
As I turned the far corner, there were a number of vehicles in the queue ahead of me at the Six Ways traffic lights. I didn’t get through the lights on their first change, but with a second opportunity I turned left and set off up the A40 into the Cotswolds. When driving in the dark, I actually prefer to be the first vehicle in a line of traffic as it’s far less mesmerising than being within a queue! I’ve nicknamed my car ‘Kumbeshwar’, as he likes to lead the field! A couple of vehicles overtook me as the road climbed up past the reservoir and again at the dual carriageway section after the traffic lights; but after that I was able to travel at a comfortable 60 mph at the front of the procession!
Upon reaching the Stow / Cirencester Road, a vehicle turned onto the road in front of me, so I followed that all the way to Burford, in fact we caught up with the line of vehicles in front of us. There’s a small stretch of road before the roundabout at the western end of the dual carriageway; and then it was onwards to Oxford. As I had plenty of time, I didn’t burn up too much petrol by speeding along this stretch of the road.
I decided to travel around the Oxford bypass and join the M40 eastbound carriageway. The journey went smoothly until an information sign advised of long delays between junctions 2 and 1; so upon reaching the Beaconsfield junction I left the motorway and headed to Amersham (the nature of the road reminds me of the A40 between Burford and Cheltenham), then on to Chesham (where I was briefly delayed by traffic signals at a section of road works) and Hemel Hempstead. It’s a route filled with the hills and valleys of the Chilterns, and an area I know very well from my days as a rambler.
With the threat of overnight frost, the gritting lorries were out in force; unfortunately one of them sprayed my car as I drove through Leverstock Green on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead. Not only did the noise of the grit hitting the paintwork startle me, I was rather annoyed that they might have damaged it too. Damn.
I arrived home at 19:35, the return journey having taken 2 hours and 35 minutes. Time to upload the photographs and write a blog entry before turning in for the night. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ...
An excellent day at the races, but a shame that Choc had missed three more Saturday winners. But it was an expensive excursion, the car fuel had cost me £32, the ticket £25, and the race-card £3; a total of £60.
In the early hours, Choc tweeted that he couldn’t sleep ... but by that time I was fast asleep, having logged off my laptop before midnight. Having broken up with his wife last summer, Choc had been looking after his son William for the past few days; so I’m surprised that didn’t ensure that he got a good night’s sleep!