Kempton Park 01 Nov Choc 14 r.jpg




Today was Choc’s second outing as ‘The Face of National Hunt Racing’ at Kempton Park.


Being a Monday, my first task of the day was to purchase a copy of the Racing Post, so as to read Choc’s weekly column.  With this in mind, having showered, and washed and dried my hair, I set off for the local supermarket, which is a mere 10 minute walk down the road. 


Then having returned home, reading over breakfast, I discovered Choc had been given the go-ahead to commence riding out (which he did for the first time at Timmy Murphy’s pre-training yard the previous Saturday), although he was not permitted to jump his mounts over fences for a couple of weeks, just in case he had a mishap.  (And in other articles, you could detect his apprehension about falling off, having gone through so much pain and distress since his accident in July.)


He reported that having noticed a massive improvement in his knee following the most recent operation, a bit of swelling had returned, which was slightly hindering his ability to fully bend the knee.  The aim was to be able to touch the back of his thigh with his heel, so he was undergoing massage to loosen up his knee, followed by very painful (tearfully painful in fact) brute force to push his leg back. 


Choc also put forward the idea of splitting the National Hunt season into two phases – summer and winter – and having a Jockeys’ Championship for both ... although he freely admitted that AP would probably win both!


Choc’s third topic for discussion was ‘coaching’ for young jockeys.  Choc’s opinion is that the best way to gain experience is to be a conditional jockey based with one trainer and, when not required to race-ride, the jockey would work in that trainer’s yard.


And, finally, he mentioned the conflict of interest which was currently being debated in respect to the funding of horseracing.


After breakfast I applied my makeup and changed into my outfit for the day – my grey tweed skirt (a favourite), grey thermal vest, cerise sweater, black frilled edged cardigan, and black patterned tights, which I would wear with my grey pull-on knee-high boots.  I placed my cerise pink short length coat in the car, with the hope that the day would remain mild for the time of year and, perhaps, the sun might make an appearance later in the day too.


The gates opened two hours before the first race, which was due off at 13:00.  I therefore decided to leave home just before 09:30; taking the M25 and M3 to my destination.  As I approached the M25 at junction 21A, I did think about heading via Garston and Leavesden to join the motorway at junction 19 but, in the event, and as the motorway traffic appeared to be moving okay, I took the sliproad to join it at the earlier junction.  However the traffic wasn’t free-flowing for long, as I was soon crawling along in the countraflow system.  However, despite this initial hold-up in my journey, I reached my Kempton Park destination at 10:40. 


I also saw my second magpie of the day as I drove up the M3, so felt a lot more confident that the day would go well (the first bird had been strutting around my garden) – but it’s only in recent years that I’ve become superstitious regarding these creatures, and I won’t wear green to the races either (isn’t that a Nicky Henderson superstition?)


Having parked my car in the free parking area, I set off for the main entrance building.  I noticed that the ‘Chocmobile’ had arrived, as Choc was standing alongside the vehicle and taking advantage of a cigarette break before he entered the racecourse.  I went to join a queue forming inside the main entrance building, as there was a delay due to a flatbed lorry being parked on the main concourse, which presumably had to be moved for health and safety reasons before any punters entered the racecourse precincts. 


Whilst I was waiting, Choc walked in through the entrance; he was carrying his green Hunter wellies in preparation for his ‘final furlong’ course walk.  He was wearing his camel coloured coat today, and a brown pinstripe suit with a yellow tie.  I just knew it would be his camel coat, as he’d worn his black coat last time!  And Choc had undergone a haircut since his last outing – which I knew about, as he’d appeared on Racing UK 9 days earlier, having been interviewed at Newbury whilst representing Alan King when Tuanku ran in a Ladies’ Amateur flat race at that track. 


I want my hair cut ... I missed my last ‘appointment‘ with my sister-in-law as it clashed with my visit to Kempton Park on 17 October.  And I’ve reached the stage where I want my hair to be cut short again, and I mean short!  The only advantage about having longer hair is that it keeps me warm in winter and stops me getting sunburnt in summer ... the front is white now, but the back is still brunette!  Just my luck that I started to go prematurely grey, starting at the age of 20.


Finally the gates were opened, so I purchased my ticket (£18), a race-card (£2.50) and then went to the Racecourse Office to sign up for the ‘final furlong’ course walk, plus the ‘integrity tour’ on this occasion.  Originally I booked to take part in the ‘integrity tour’ prior to the first race, but a little later I went back to the office, selecting to go prior to the third race instead.  Fortunately, being a weekday when few children would attend, there was no equicisor today. 


I’d arrived so early at the Racecourse Office, that the leaflet I was given still had the timings for 17 October printed on it.  However, the time of Choc’s course-walk today was listed in the race-card, so I knew that I had to arrive at Gate Q by 12:15, with the walk commencing at 12:25.   Whilst waiting for the day’s proceedings to commence, I went to sit on a bench overlooking the Parade Ring, the sun putting in an appearance and remaining for the rest of the day.  It was mild and bright, very untypical for November and I’ve been so fortunate with the weather on my days out at Kempton Park so far this season!


Racing UK’s Lydia Hislop and Jonathan Neesom arrived just before midday, and would be presenting for their TV channel today. 


Soon it was time for me to report for the course-walk; the number of people taking advantage of the walk was far fewer than the maximum permitted (which is 30 I believe), so I couldn’t feel bad about taking up one of the spaces by repeating the stroll up the course.  Our group exited the gate and walked down the hurdles side of the course to wait until Choc arrived.  During my conversation with the lady who was organising the walk, I confessed to running a website dedicated to Choc.  She asked me how long the site had been in operation – two years (I set this site up at the end of October in 2008).  She thought that I’d have lots of questions to ask ... well, actually, I’ve asked him lots of questions in the past ... so probably wouldn’t be able to think of anything new to ask today.  However, the walk is a wonderful opportunity to see Choc ‘up close and personal’ and to take photos of my favourite person!


Our hostess suggested someone should ask Choc if he had any tips for the afternoon’s racing, as Choc had selected 5 of the 7 winners at the last meeting.  I understand that Choc had earlier joined the tipster panel in the Clubhouse for Members only.  The lucky Members will be treated to ‘Breakfast with Choc Thornton’ on Boxing Day 26 December too ... I’m not a Member and, unfortunately, my funds won’t stretch to this at the present time L.  And, I gather, the lucky Members had the opportunity to visit Alan King’s yard too. 


When Choc arrived, we went across to join him at the furlong post on the chase course and he was very adept at walking backwards as we followed him up the course.  


My choice of pull-on boots was a mistake, as my feet were soon soaked!  Although I had worn them on the very wet Cheltenham Gold Cup day last season without any problem.  And I’ve been into the centre of the course at Cheltenham to watch the cross-country event, again with no problem.  However, I wash my boots when I get home, put them in the airing cupboard, and when I take them out again they are almost as good as new!


Unfortunately I cannot remember many of the questions or answers, but I do recall that upon turning into the home straight and jumping the third last fence, he liked to be one length down on the leader if his mount was going well.  His major tip of the day was the Martin Keighley trained Mark of Love, who was running in the last race of the day, the Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, to be ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies.


Someone asked him which was the most important winner he’d ridden at Kempton Park - Call Equiname in the Victor Chandler Chase (1999), although the horse (a grey) was not in the same class as his equine hero Desert Orchid!   He also mentioned winning the Desert Orchid Chase in consecutive years on Voy Por Ustedes (2006 & 2007).  For the record, Choc rode a treble on the day when he won aboard Call Equiname, winning aboard Flagship Uberalles and Storm Damage too, all three horses were trained by Paul Nichols. 






He was asked whether he’d ever misjudged the finishing line (a strip of grass across the width of the course is cut shorter than the rest to denote the line) ... yes he had, at Wincanton (I think he said)  and was duly ‘hauled across the coals’ by the Stewards.


At the end of the walk, one lady apologised to Choc for arriving late.  I decided to ask Choc to sign his autograph in my race-card today as, surprisingly, I’ve only asked for his autograph once before.  Everyone exited the course via Gate Q, including Choc, the organiser walking back with him to the grandstand area.

I went down the steps and through the betting hall to reach the Parade Ring in order to see the horses arrive in the Parade Ring ahead of the first race of the day, a two mile Novices’ Hurdle event.  Alan King had a runner in this race, Iolith, ridden by Wayne Hutchinson and it duly won, by 2¾ lengths. 


A little later in the afternoon, Choc was interviewed by Kempton’s raceday presenter for Kempton Park TV (or KPTV - which makes me think of peanuts!)  The interview took place in the glass-sided studio next to the Parade Ring and, when the presenter suggested that Choc might return in time for their Winter Festival at the end of December, Choc said that may in fact be possible should his recovery continue to go well.  Choc was even asked about the difficulties he’d encountered, such as going to the loo and sleeping, whilst he’d been wearing the leg brace ... and this might have possibly gleaned a little more information than we needed (although, I confess, it wasn’t the first time I’d thought about this myself!).  However, Choc didn’t elucidate, but said that his wife Meally had done an excellent job of looking after him during this period. 


Both Alan King and Martin Keighley had runners in the second race of the day, the National Hunt Novices’ Hurdle.  The Laodicean finished 5th and Monty’s Revenge last respectively.


The next ‘special event’ of the day was an autograph signing/photo opportunity session with the jockeys.  A table and chairs were arranged next to the glass-sided studio, and Barry Geraghty, Sam Thomas, Mark Bradburne, William Kennedy, Tim Scudamore, Dougie Costello, and AP came along to do the honours.  And, yes, I collected more autographs in my race-card.  Ruby Walsh, I gather, arrived a little later, but I had to report for the ‘Integrity Tour’ at this time.  Choc was nearby too, and also signed a number of autographs.

I joined three other race-goers for the ‘Integrity Tour’, one of the ladies remarking that, coincidently, her first name was also Jane and her maiden name was the same as my surname!  The tour leader took us up in the lift to the top level, then up a flight of steps and past the press box – evidently, on Boxing Day, extra tables will have to be put in the corridor to accommodate the large number of press representatives who attend on that day. 

We then walked along the corridor to the commentator’s box.  Alan Howes was today’s commentator and, although accustomed to commentating on all weather racing at Kempton, this was the first time he’d commentated on the jump racing.  We were in the commentator’s box whilst he spoke about the horses as they headed to the start for the third race. 

Before the race started, we went to the box next door, the tour guide raising the metal blinds so that we could watch the race as it was run – a Novices’ Handicap Chase, in which Alan King had a runner, the mare Itea Du Fau.  As I don’t like heights, I didn’t get too close to the box edge which, of course, was now open to the elements!  Obviously the view of the course was excellent and, in the far distance, you could see the area where the abandoned ‘Jubilee spur’ used to be, before the course was made over to all weather racing in the ‘mid-noughties’.


For the record, Itea Du Fau finished last of the 7 runners.  It was then time to see where the Stewards Room was located, and the Judge’s room, a lady judge being on duty today.  The floodlights control room was also along this same corridor.

Having finished this part of the tour, we then returned to the ground floor using the lift, and set off to see the Weighing Room.  As we went inside, Ruby Walsh was sitting in the corner, holding a conversation on his mobile phone.  Venetia Williams arrived to collect her runner’s saddle and weight cloth (Maraafeq), her jockey Aiden Coleman standing on the scales in the process of weighing out.  Leighton Aspell also weighed out whilst we were there, he would be riding Alderluck for Nick Gifford in the next race, the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle Qualifier.  And I saw the rear view of an unidentified naked jockey as he walked across the inner sanctum!!! 

The tour having finished, we thanked our hostess tour guide and returned to the Parade Ring in preparation for the next race of the day.  Apart from the one race I’d watched from the top level of the grandstand, I viewed all the other races from beside the course-side rails, and in most instances I was stood close to the Winning Post. 

There were 9 runners in the Qualifier, including the Martin Keighley trained Rodrigo Gonzales, and the popular Lough Derg.  However, the race was won by Working Title trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty, but I think he was lucky to win as Alderluck was travelling the best when taking a nasty tumble at the second last flight.  Fortunately horse and jockey were okay.  However, when race favourite King’s Forest fell at the last when booked for 4th, the situation looked serious as the screens were erected around the prostrate horse.  His trainer, Emma Lavelle, hurrying down the course to see her charge, preceded by her partner Barry Fenton.  But there was good news as I was returning to the Parade Ring, the commentator announcing that the horse had got to its feet and was fine.  Rodrigo Gonzales had finished 6th.

It was now time for the big race of the day, the 2 miles 4½ furlong Graduation Chase.  Alan King’s runner, the grey Bakbenscher, was having his first run since February having suffered a stress fracture of the near-fore cannon bone.  Choc came to the Parade Ring to speak with the horse’s connections - the same owners as Blazing Bailey (yellow and blue chevron colours).  Clive Smith, the owner of runner Free World (and of course Kauto Star) briefly spoke with Choc, presumably to ask how he was, as he passed by.

The race was won by the Nicky Henderson trained Riverside Theatre, who is partnership owned by actor James Nesbitt.  Free World finished 2nd, with Tatenen running well to finish 3rd, having been transferred to Richard Rowe’s yard from Paul Nicholls whilst still in the ownership of the Stewart Family.  Bakbenscher didn’t jump convincingly and finished a distant 5th of the 6 runners. 

Choc’s final ‘official duty’ of the day was to give guidance to one lucky race-goer who had been selected to choose the Best Turned Out horse running in the 6th race of the day.  The race-goer was accompanied by his elderly mother and father.  They chose number 2, the Colin Tizzard trained Coup Royale – my selection for this prize too, strangely enough – as a plaited mane always wins ‘brownie points’.  Trainer Brendan Powell spoke with Choc whilst he was in the Parade Ring, and Richard Phillips shared a joke with him too.

Coup Royale looked like the winner until ‘let down’ in the straight, being beaten into 2nd place by a typical AP ride aboard the aptly named Victory Surge.  The race-goer also presented the prize to the winning connections – which, in the absence of trainer Jonjo O’Neill and the owners, was Travelling Head Lad Paddy Brennan.

It was soon time for the last race of the day, the Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, in which Martin Keighley was to run Mark of Love, owned by Martin’s sponsors 7-day Catering, and ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies.  The horse had been off the racecourse for 981 days due to a leg problem (a tendon injury) which had also flared up for a second time to prevent an earlier return to the racecourse.  Mark of Love had transferred from Richard Phillips’ yard during his absence and last ran on 24 February 2008 at Exeter!  Alan King also had a runner, Quetzal, which I recall once inflicted a kick upon Choc when in the parade ring at Uttoxeter prior to a bumper race.  

I’m very pleased to report that Mark of Love duly trotted up, an amazing training feat.  And, of course, Choc’s top tip of the day too!!!  Quetzal completed in 3rd.  I returned to the Parade Ring to see the victor come back and I departed after the presentation had been made.  As the race was being sponsored by London Irish Rugby Club, part of the prize was a team rugby shirt!

I returned to my car and, having not eaten since breakfast, I ate a quick snack before setting off for home at 16:40.  As always, there was a long traffic queue to negotiate leading up to the roundabout below junction 1 of the M3.  I reached the M25 at 17:00 – rush hour!  However, the traffic wasn’t too bad, in fact it was travelling better than during my homeward journey on Sunday 17 October, although at times we were reduced to 40 mph – the section between the M3 to M40 being the worst, and again when entering the road-works which commenced at Junction 18.

I arrived home at 18:00, just 10 minutes later than I would normally do on a workday.  As expected, my grey boots having been washed and then placed in the airing cupboard for a day to dry, look almost as good as new!

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