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In September 2010, whilst Choc was out of action having sustained a serious knee injury, it was announced that he had been appointed as Kempton Park’s ‘Face of National Hunt Racing’ and would be attending all their jumps fixtures between Sunday 17 October and the William Hill Winter Festival at Christmas.   

Kempton Park’s aim is to get people more involved with jump racing – race-goers being given the opportunity to have a behind-the-scenes look at racing, as well as take part in autograph and photo sessions with the stars.  As part of his role, Choc would take groups for a stroll along the final furlong, talking about the sport and answering any questions. 


Therefore today was Choc’s first outing as ‘The Face of National Hunt Racing’ at the track, and a very cute face it is too! 


Having booked the previous Friday off work, I was in two minds as to whether to also attend one day of Cheltenham’s Showcase fixture, but in the end I decided against it. 


During the previous few days I’d mulled over which outfit to wear and on Saturday morning finally made a decision.  However, on Sunday morning having put on a skirt with co-ordinated top and cardigan, plus long boots ... I discovered that I felt over-dressed, and so I changed into jeans, top and my beloved long purple cardigan which, in fact, was the original outfit I’d envisaged wearing!  Roll on the cold weather I guess, as it soon won’t matter what I wear ... just so long as I can fit as many layers as possible under my coat – thermal vest, camisole, short sleeved top, long sleeved top, sweater, cardigan, fleece, and gilet!


The gates opened two hours before the first race (as is usually the case at race meetings) so this meant 12:20.  I knew it should take around an hour to reach the course, providing there were no holdups on the M25, which couldn’t be guaranteed especially with the motorway widening scheme in operation between junctions 18 and 22.  


So, having left home at 10:45 and encountered no traffic problems, I duly arrived at Kempton Park at 11:45.  Whenever possible, I park in the free car park and, as I was early I found myself parked on the 4th row of the grid.  Normally I’d wait in my car until the gates open but, on this occasion I was raring to go, so I found myself outside the main entrance just a few minutes later.  As it was a very sunny and warm day, for the time of year, it was pleasant waiting outside the gate. 


Whilst I was standing there, Choc’s valet Phil Taylor exited via the main entrance to return to his vehicle briefly, which was parked nearby.  On his return I said hello.  ‘You’ve come to enjoy a day at the races’ he said.  ‘Yes, but I’ve mainly come along to see Choc’ I replied.  Phil greeted jockey Denis O’Regan who had just arrived. 


As the gate opening time drew nearer, I decided to join the queue which was already forming inside the main entrance hall.  Whilst I was waiting, Jeremy Kyle and his wife arrived to collect their owner badges from the reception area.  Finally, having purchased my ticket and picked up a ‘Choc Thornton’ leaflet from the counter, I went to buy a race-card from the kiosk and was the first race-goer to report to the Racecourse Office (which adjoins the Owners and Trainers lounge) to sign up for the ‘Final Furlong’ course walk with Choc.  The lady at the reception handed me a leaflet explaining details of when and where to report (Gate Q no later than 13:30) and told me the Clerk of the Course had reported that the grass would be wet.  Not a problem I said, as sensibly, I was now wearing a pair of cowboy-style boots.    


When I arrive at Kempton Park, and if it’s sunny and not too cold, I like to sit on one of the benches opposite the Parade Ring, so this was where I initially headed.  I could see Choc over in the distance, just across from the Weighing Room, where he was instructing those brave enough to try out the mechanical horse or Equicisor.  Choc was looking very smart in a pinstripe suit, he wore a red tie, and a black overcoat.  As I didn’t wish to appear too keen or ‘stalkerish’, I decided to wait a few minutes before heading over to see him. 


When I arrived at the Equicisor I discovered that Choc was being ably assisted by his friend, and BHEST representative, Ollie McPhail.  Alan King’s ex-Travelling Head Lad, Anita Cusack, was also there, having gone across to chat with Choc too.  I stayed to watch a number of people try out the riding apparatus, noticing that one teenage girl was very good, whilst her friend just couldn’t get the hang of it at all!  I wonder if, at one of the Monday National Hunt fixtures I might have a go ... it would certainly give Choc a laugh, as I haven’t ridden a horse for nearly 20 years ... and I would never have classed myself as possessing much natural talent for it!  Ollie’s cute blonde toddler daughter was certainly having a fun time climbing on and off the Equicisor when it was not in use.  It was noticeable, however, that Choc’s limp was more pronounced than it had been when I saw him at the London Racing Club event last month, and I would soon discover why.


Nearby, two Heros horses http://www.heroscharity.org/ were being prepared for their appearance in the Parade Ring later in the afternoon.  One was the Malcolm Denmark owned ex-racehorse, Monsignor, who is the charity’s ‘flag bearer’, the other horse (which was for sale) was standing patiently in the makeshift stable whilst being painted, one side to represent the horse’s skeleton, the other side the muscles (as per the demonstration I’d seen at Newbury earlier in the year).  Monsignor could see horses arriving in the pre-parade ring area and whinnied to them.  Having said hello to and stroked Monsignor, I returned to sit on a bench beside the Parade Ring.

It was soon time for the next Choc-related event – when he became a member of the 3-person Tipster panel and came to stand with his colleagues beside the Parade Ring.  I know Choc tipped the Alan King trained Jubail to win the first race but, as I’m not a betting person, I don’t recall any of his other tips!  But I was definitely very interested in taking photos of him!  Unfortunately I also had to spend my time ‘clock watching’, as I knew I had to be at Gate Q before 13:30, so Choc was still running through his tips when I set off to rendezvous with the other participants of the course walk. 

Choc’s hair is getting very long now and, although beautiful, when he’s outside and the wind is blowing, it keeps falling across in his eyes.   Mind you, he would make a very attractive swashbuckler ... but that’s a totally different fantasy altogether!!!

Fortunately the big screen in front of the stands was broadcasting the Tipster Panel, so at least I could watch Choc whilst I waited for the walk to begin.  The lady from the racecourse office ticked everyone off from her list and we were soon escorted out through Gate Q to walk down to the 1 Furlong post.  Choc, having exited via the horse walkway, followed us down the course and soon met up with us.  He had swapped his original footwear for a pair of green Hunter Wellingtons.

Choc explained that Kempton Park is a very straightforward racecourse to ride around, as there were no gradients like a number of more difficult courses.  Again, Choc said that Newbury is the course which he finds the most difficult to compete around and Cheltenham is still his favourite. 

We took a cursory look at the final fence, Choc saying that they’d be pretty stiff today having been ‘re-packed’ ahead of the new season.  Alan King likes Choc to take an inside line when riding his horses in races whenever possible.  By the time the runners have reached this final fence they will already have set sail for home. 

Yet again he was asked about the notorious 2nd last at Cheltenham – he thought it rode fine at the weekend having been moved into the home straight.  There had been fallers at the fence on Saturday during the feature event, but he said the horses involved (Gwanako and Frosted Grape) hadn’t got high enough at the fence so it was unavoidable.  There was mention of the ‘low sun’ issue affecting fences in the home straight, and he said that, during the winter months, steeplechases would have to be run at specific times during the afternoon to avoid this problem.  He said that sometimes the race-goers think that the jockeys are making a ‘mountain out of a molehill’ when they insist on bypassing fences due to low sun – but it can be extremely difficult to see properly and would be extremely dangerous.

Understandably he was asked about his injury.  He explained that he’d had a minor operation on the knee last Thursday, in order to remove the scar tissue which built up following the first procedure, and this will allow him more movement in the joint.  He has a provisional timetable and is still hoping to return to race riding in January.

Again, when asked which race he’d most like to win, he said the Grand National.  Does Alan King have a prospective Cheltenham Gold Cup or Grand National horse in the yard at the moment?  No, but Choc is hopeful he’ll pick up a spare ride from another stable for the latter.   

Also, everyone was in agreement with Choc’s stand against speaking with any of the Channel 4 presenters immediately upon crossing the winning line at the Cheltenham Festival.  (Note from Jane: Hopefully Choc will have the opportunity to put this into practice with his 16th Festival victory at the 2011 event!)

Once he’d answered everyone’s questions, a number of walk participants asked for his autograph, and some had their photos taken with him individually.  The official photographer had already taken a ‘group photo’ ... which later appeared on Kempton Park’s Face of National Hunt Racing facebook page ... that’s me, second from the left, wearing the cobalt blue coat.  As always, I waited until last in order to tell him I’d enjoyed my brief walk, plus to give him a kiss on the cheek before saying goodbye.  As the group members had been escorted off the course via Gate Q, I followed in their wake, whilst Choc walked back up the course to the horse-walk exit point. 

Another ‘special’ event was a jockeys’ autograph signing session, but this coincided with my ‘Final Furlong’ jaunt, so I missed it.  Having seen a photograph of the jockeys who took part, they were Wayne Hutchinson, Marc Goldstein, Grand National winning jockey Liam Treadwell, Tom Scudamore and Denis O’Regan. 

There were also individual trips to the start of the first six races of the day, via a minibus, plus to the commentary box where the race-goers were hosted by the day’s commentator Mike Cattermole, and also a behind-the-scenes look at the Steward’s Room.   

Alan King had two runners during the afternoon, Jubail in the first race, the Juvenile Hurdle, and Katchit in the feature Hurdle race later on the card.  Both horses were to be ridden by Wayne Hutchinson.  As there had been no noticeable rainfall during the past few days, there was a lack of ease in the ground, so intended runners Medermit, Lidar and Franklino were not declared to run. 

However, Alan King’s runner, the evens favourite Jubail, won the first race of the day, beating 2nd favourite Plan A ridden by AP McCoy by a neck.

Sonning Star, the horse owned by Jeremy Kyle’s wife, finished 2nd in the next race of the day, the two mile Beginners’ Chase.

Following the third race, Choc’s wife, Meally, came along to the Parade Ring to watch the next Choc-related ‘special event’ and I went across to say hello, briefly.  Meally had been accompanied to the races by her sister Sarah and a couple of her sister’s friends too.    


This event involved Choc explaining to race-goers how a racehorse is saddled.  Monsignor acted as the ‘guinea pig’ and the actual saddling was carried out by ex-jockey Colin Brown, who is best known as the sometime rider of Desert Orchid, whose statue fittingly overlooks the Kempton Park Parade Ring. 


Choc explained that firstly a protector cloth is placed on the horse’s back, followed by the weight cloth, and then the saddle is secured by a girth and, following this, a second girth is applied over the top of the saddle for safety reasons, just in case the first girth fails.  Choc’s largest saddle weighs around one stone ... although he said he can rarely use it these days, as his weight becomes more of an issue as he grows older. 

We discovered that some trainers like to use elastic girths whilst others, like Alan King, never use elastic girths because this prevents them being overtightened.  (Presumably that’s why all his horses wear wide breastgirths, which will prevent the saddles slipping back if the girth is too loose.)


Choc mentioned that French trainer Francois Doumen forbides anyone to touch his horses’ girths once they have been saddled, so they are never tightened, not even after the horse has cantered to the starting gate.


Occasionally Choc has been called upon to saddle a particularly difficult horse which he has been due to ride.


Mid-afternoon, the Heros’ representatives brought their ‘painted’ horse to the Parade Ring to explain the skeletal structure of the horse and also the soft-tissue structure.  They explained that some of the horses under their care are loaned out whilst retained under their original ownership.  Others are sold to new owners following their re-schooling.  The ‘painted’ horse fell into the latter category and was for sale to a suitable new owner.


Fact of the day - all mammals have 7 bones in their neck – even the giraffe – it’s just that some animals have bigger bones than others!


Choc returned to the Equicisor area for a while, but as the sunshine faded and the day grew colder, punters weren’t so keen to hang around, and the attraction gradually wound down and was packed away.  I didn’t see Choc for the remainder of the afternoon.


It was noticeably colder by the time the 5th race of the day was due off.  This was the feature event of the afternoon, the two mile williamhill.com Hurdle.  Katchit was taking part in this event, having returned to training after fracturing a hind pastern at the Cheltenham Festival last March.   Although the trip was thought to be a little too short for Katchit, Alan was keen to give him a run, as he seems to have retained his enthusiasm for racing despite having lost some of his speed.


During our course walk, Choc had mentioned that he’d love to give Katchit a home upon retirement – even if it meant keeping him in his back garden!


I’m pleased to report that Katchit ran well, staying on to pip the 2009 Scottish Champion Hurdle winner, Noble Alan for 2nd at the line, the latter reverting back to hurdles today.  The winner, by 10 lengths, was the progressive grey Australia Day trained by Paul Webber. 


I stayed until after the final race of the day had been run, so the sun was setting as I left Kempton Park.  As usual on a race day, traffic was moving slowly as cars exiting from the ‘pay’ car park area entered the stream of vehicles moving along the main road.  However, once I’d joined the M3 motorway, everything ran smoothly apart from having to slow down due to a traffic incident, but the vehicle involved (which was not badly damaged) was already on the hard-shoulder with ambulances in attendance. 

Due to weight of numbers, traffic was moving at around 40 mph on the M25 between the M4 and M40 junctions, but was travelling fine for the remainder of the journey.  It was fortunate that I wasn’t on the anti-clockwise carriageway, as vehicles were moving at a crawl in the contraflow system near the M1 junction.


I noticed how very cold it had become when I got out of the car at home, a chilly night was in prospect.  Autumn appears to have arrived. 


As it was 19:10 when I got home, I was able to watch the Strictly Come Dancing Results programme, Paul Daniels being voted off the show this week.


Choc had spent the previous Friday and Saturday at home recuperating from the keyhole surgery on his knee and

Meally mentioned, in her Eclipse column, that Choc’s knee had become a little sore by the end of Sunday.

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