KP 22 Nov 2010 8 r.jpg




Today was Choc’s third outing as ‘The Face of National Hunt Racing’ at Kempton Park.  It was also a Charity Race Day, funds being raised for the Starlight Children’s Foundation which makes the wishes of seriously and terminally ill children come true.


Unfortunately for me, the previous Tuesday evening I’d started to get the symptoms of my first cold of the winter.  But, three days coming, three days here, three days going ... so hopefully by Monday the worst of my cold would be over.   I find that the sore throat stage of a cold is the worst for me – especially as I’ve had a few encounters with tonsillitis when I was young, then again in my late teens, and even a couple of times less than a decade ago.  But I’ve still got my tonsils.  I sometimes get laryngitis too, but at least it keeps me quiet for a few days!


Anyway, my cold was ‘streaming’ by last Friday, and I spent the whole of Saturday moping around the house in my nightdress and dressing-gown, but by Sunday I felt a lot better, and so when Monday dawned there was absolutely no way I was going to miss seeing Choc at Kempton Park.


Being a Monday, my first task of the day was to purchase a copy of the Racing Post in order to read Choc’s weekly column.  So having put on my makeup I set off for the local supermarket, which is a mere 10 minute walk down the road. 


Then having returned home, I read his column whilst I ate my breakfast, and then I wrapped up warm for my trip to the races.  I wore cords today, with thick tights underneath, my khaki ankle boots, long sleeved thermal vest, sleeveless thermal vest, pink sweater, black cardigan, purple fleece, turquoise gillet, and long black faux sheepskin coat – certainly no colour co-ordination involved, as this was topped off with my neon blue scarf, chosen because a red, mauve or pink one might draw attention to my red Rudolf nose!


The gates opened two hours before the first race, which was due off at 12:30.  I therefore decided to leave home just after 09:00.  However, having gone half a mile down the road, I realised I’d forgotten my make-up bag.  Would I need to apply more make-up to camaflage my red nose during the day?  Should I go back?  Oh, what to do?  I decided to press on.


Having reached the A414 not far from home, in fact just on the outskirts of St Albans, I encountered a long queue of almost stationary traffic.  But, as I know my local area very well, I decided to take the slip-road onto a country lane which would lead back towards my home city, then up past the Sopwell House Hotel  and the mill by the River Ver, through the council estate, and eventually out to join the dual carriageway running down towards the M25.


My first thought was to join the M25 immedidately but, having glanced down to see that traffic on the anti-clockwise carriageway was travelling slowly through the contraflow system, I headed on towards Leavesden and joined the motorway at Junction 19.  Fortunately this is at the far end of the current roadworks, so having joined at 30 mph, by the time the next junction was reached all traffic was moving quickly. 


There was a little congestion between the M40 and M4 junctions on the M25 but, apart from that, everything went smoothly, and I arrived at Kempton Park at 10:20.  Having parked my car in the free parking area, I set off for the main entrance building. 


I noticed that the ‘Chocmobile’ had arrived, Choc seemingly just returning briefly to his vehicle to put something in the boot, and to take out his Hunter Wellingtons. I went to wait inside the main entrance building, as the turnstiles weren’t quite ready to open.  Whilst I was waiting, Choc walked in through the entrance doors, he was wearing his camel coloured coat today.  His hair was still slightly damp having, obviously, been washed recently too.


Finally the gates were opened, so I purchased my ticket (£18), a race-card (£2.50) and then went to wait inside the warm Racecourse Office in order to sign up for the ‘final furlong’ course walk, plus a ‘trip to the start’ of one of the races.  Registrations for the activities didn’t start until 11:00, hence the wait, and I chose to go to the start of the 4th race, the 5 runner Beginners’ Chase.  I did check that it was okay for me to repeat the final furlong course walk, this being my third ... yes, that’s fine, and I can even do it again if I arrive early enough on Boxing Day or the day after! 

Today’s course walk was due to take place at 11:50 so, by the time I’d signed up and popped briefly to the loo, I decided to head for Gate Q; whilst waiting I sat on one of the benches in the watery sunshine.  It was obvious that the wind direction had changed to a colder north easterly, as the aeroplanes out of Heathrow were flying directly (and noisily) over the racecourse today! 


More people had signed up for Choc’s walk today than on 01 November but, of course, not as many as had been participating on Sunday 17 October.  Our usual lady guide took us down to the one furlong post, where we waited for Choc, who walked down the course alone having exited via the horse walkway entrance.  Any ‘lameness’ he has suffered is barely noticeable now.


Choc soon reached us and introduced himself.  He said he’d ridden out at Alan King’s Barbury Castle yard this morning, and had taken his first fall since his July accident.  However, he was very pleased to report that his knee held up well to this mishap and he’d suffered no ill effects. He was going to visit his surgeon the following Monday for a check-up and then hoped the BHA’s doctor would clear him to race-ride.  This could be as early as mid-week next week (01 December) or possibly anything up to a month’s time.


On this occasion, Choc walked us up between the wings of the last fence, so that we got a better view than on previous occasions.  The fences look a lot larger from the approach, due to the wide apron, but they probably appear more inviting when you are actually on the back of a horse. (Or maybe not!)  Choc did explain that they are supposed to be 4 feet 6 inches high but do, in fact, vary from course to course.  He asked if anyone had watched the first meeting at Aintree this autumn, drawing particular attention to the fact that the Mildmay course fences had been particularly stiff and big on that occasion.  The fences had, however, been trimmed back a little for the Aintree meeting which had taken place the previous day.


Someone asked him why he is nicknamed Chocolate – because he loves chocolate and also because his surname is Thornton, the same as the chocolate manufacturer. 


He was asked who he thought was the better jockey, Ruby Walsh or AP McCoy?  They are both brilliant jockeys, it just depends what you want from your jockey – Ruby will sit handy and ‘finesse’ a horse home, whereas AP is brilliant at booting home even the most unwilling and reluctant horse.


Would he have liked the opportunity to ride Kauto Star around Kempton?  No, he’d have preferred to have ridden Desert Orchid or One Man.  


Who will win the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, Imperial Commander or Kauto Star?  Kauto should win, provided he runs up to his usual form, as he doesn’t think that Imperial Commander has as much speed. 


Choc said he spoke with Ruby this morning, he was as upbeat as he could have been considering the fact that he’s facing another long spell on the sidelines. 


Someone asked about the new ‘Equicisor’ which is based at Newmarket which simulates a fall – John Francome tried it out recently, the film having been broadcast on The Morning Line the previous Saturday.  Choc’s not sure really, although he might try it out, the problem is that it simulates just one type of fall and every fall will be different, although the jockey tends to go out the side-door more often than straight over the head.  He’s had plenty of ‘fall practice’ at the Oaksey gym.  Choc also mentioned poor Christian Williams who broke both arms recently, a result of the human reflex to save yourself by putting out your arms when falling. 


Choc was impressed by Master Minded’s return at Ascot the previous weekend.  Choc wouldn’t want to ride Big Zeb again, even if he got the opportunity!  (Choc having taken a crashing fall from the horse in the 2009 Champion Chase.)  He doesn’t think that Somersby has quite what it takes to become a top star in this league – but he said not to tell Henrietta Knight that!


Not surprisingly, Choc was asked whether, had he been fit, he might have been approached to ride some of Paul Nicholls’ horses during Ruby’s absence.  Maybe, as things had just started to move in that direction when he suffered his incapacitating fall from the Paul Nicholls trained Hell’s Bay.  A horse which he pointed out, since the incident, seems to have gone from strength to strength (having gone to the sales and was now running for the Colin Tizzard yard).  Choc is of the opinion that you can’t dwell on what might have been, you just have to accept what is.  Noel Fehily is a very talented substitute for Ruby and deserves his chance.


Choc said the top bend at Kempton Park rides much better now that it’s ‘all weather’ as opposed to grass.


Someone asked how far the run-in was at Kempton?  How many yards are there in a furlong?  I knew the answer to that one – 220 yards.  [Mind you, it’s only become part of my knowledge recently as I often wondered why races included the odd 110 yards ... because it’s half a furlong of course!]  I think the answer given was around 100 yards, but it’s not, it’s further than that, because the last fence is definitely nearer the one furlong post than the winning post!


And, once again, I took lots of lovely photographs of Choc.  I had prepared a number of questions for Choc but, in the event, we actually ran out of time, as the organiser/guide was concerned for us to clear the course before any horses appeared, just in case any of the competitors went to the start early.


A number of the participants remained behind to ask Choc for his autograph, with everyone gradually heading for Gate Q, apart from our guide and Choc, who having cleared the main part of the course, set off in the other direction and exited via a higher gate.


I returned to the Parade Ring, via the main hall of the Grandstand.  Nick Luck and Eddie Fremantle were presenting for Racing UK today.  Once the competitors for the first race had left the Parade Ring, I headed back through the main hall, and took up a position near the winning post.  There were 17 runners in the first event, a National Hunt Novices’ Hurdle, and I admired the horses as they cantered down past me to reach the 2 mile start.  My selection on looks was number 13 Sire De Grugy who, as it turned out, was 2nd favourite. 


There were no mishaps during the race, with 16 of the 17 runners completing and one being pulled up in the final straight.  The winner was the odds on favourite Bobs Worth, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty.  Sire De Grugy finished 2nd.  Choc came down to the Parade Ring following the race, afterwards disappearing with Kempton’s Raceday presenter, Anthony Kemp, in the direction of the Weighing Room.


The second race (a Novices’ Chase) had just 3 runners, the favourite being Dee Ee Williams.  Unfortunately both his rivals departed at the 6th fence when, sadly, the Philip Hobbs trained Oddshoes took a fall which proved fatal, and Quasar D’Oudairies was hampered, unseating Daryl Jacob.  Everyone held their breath as Liam Treadwell guided his mount over the final few fences to be the only finisher.


The third race of the day was the feature event, the Mares’ Listed Hurdle.  Martin Keighley had a runner in this race, Love of Tara.  However, the ground wasn’t soft enough for her and, although running well, she finished last of the 6 competitors.  The race was won by the Nicky Henderson trained, Barry Geraghty ridden, Carole’s Legacy.


Whilst the horses had paraded for this race, Choc had been interviewed by Anthony Kemp for Kempton Park TV.  The interview took place in the glass-sided studio next to the Parade Ring.  During the interview, Choc had once more confessed that he’d taken his first fall earlier that morning, confirmed that his knee was fine, and that he hoped to get clearance to race-ride in the very near future.


It was now time for my trip to the start of the 4th race of the day, the 5 runner Beginners’ Chase.  The meeting point for this activity was the gate onto the horsewalk, near the ‘dovecote’.  There were just 3 of us signed up for this trip and, very strangely, the other two people were the guy and his mother who had been chosen last meeting to select the best turned out horse and present the winners’ prize for the penultimate race.  It had been part of Choc’s duties that day to offer them help and advice in choosing the most suitable horse to award the prize to.


Anyway, our driver soon arrived to collect us and we walked out across the course to a minibus.  I was allowed to sit in the front passenger seat.  We then set off for the 3 mile start, which is just a short distance along the top of the track, where we pulled into a lay-by so that the emergency vehicles had a clear road.


The five runners in this event were Andytown (trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty), Horseshoe Reef (trained by Jamie Snowden and ridden by Daryl Jacob), Key Cutter (trained by Paul Webber and ridden by William Kennedy), Picture in the Sky (trained by Mrs Susan Nock and ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies) and Strategic Approach (trained by Warren Greatrex and ridden by Noel Fehily).


I recalled that Andytown had tried steeplechasing before but the exercise had not been successful.  However he does have the dictinction of having won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2009.  And Picture in the Sky had a spell with trainer Martin Keighley, when the horse was leased to one of the syndicates.


It had started to rain heavily by the time the jockeys had reached the starting gate.  A tape recording telling us about the race procedures was played to us.  And we learnt that the order of the pursuing vehicles is Doctor, Vet, Ambulance!  The horses’ girths were tightened, the starter called them in ... and they were off ... the horses and the vehicles.


Once the roadway was clear, we set off to take up a position opposite the final fence.  The starter and his assistant plus the flag bearer (in case of a false start) returned via a 4-wheel drive too, although our driver said that they often have transport to the start but most frequently walk back – perhaps it was the rain that deterred them off today.


Anyway, we were in plenty of time to see the horses clear the final fence with one circuit to go.  It came as no surprise to me that Andytown was jumping poorly throughout, blundering and losing ground at a number of the fences.  However, all five were still standing as they approached 4 out.  Unfortunately Picture in the Sky, when in 2nd place, blundered at this fence, Sam Twiston-Davies ending up with both legs on the near-side of the horse.  But to compensate, he threw his right leg back too vigorously over the saddle and promptly fell off over the off-side.  Whoops.  Poor Sam.


Anyway, the winner was Key Cutter, with Strategic Approach in 2nd, Andytown taking a poor 3rd during the closing stages, with Horseshoe Reef 4th. 


We returned in the minibus to the emergency vehicle parking area at the top of the course, and then walked back to the horsewalk.  The riderless Picture in the Sky had been caught and was being unsaddled in the ‘unplaced horses’ paddock, he had a cut on one of his hindlegs which became noticeable when his boot was removed. 


As I returned to the Parade Ring area, Choc was loitering outside the Weighing Room, although he did have his back to me.  I was in two minds whether to speak with him ... I didn’t ... and felt a little guilty afterwards.  It’s just that I don’t like to be a nuisance ... or perhaps I’m just being enigmatic!


At various times today I noticed he was looking very ‘little boy lost’ whilst waiting around for people to collect him prior to heading off to carry out his assorted duties.  Bless him. 


Alan King had a runner in the 5th race of the day, Kauto the Roc.  Being a Handicap Hurdle, the horse was ridden by one of his stable’s conditional jockeys Peter Hatton who, as such, was able to claim 10 lbs.  There were 12 runners in this race and Kauto the Roc duly obliged by 1½ lengths.  He was the 4-1 favourite.  Alan King was in attendance to accept the winning prize having, presumably, attended the Starlight Charity luncheon too.

Jilly Cooper had also been attending the luncheon and, afterwards, came out to the Injured Jockeys’ stand to sign copies of her latest book, Jump.  I didn’t buy a copy as I’ve already got one which I was in the process of reading.  Anthony Kemp also interviewed Jilly about her book and her interest in the world of racing.  Evidently she carries a notebook with her and jots down information, incidents and ‘people’ that she can use in her next book, and she had been doing just this during lunch today.  Not surprisingly, I carry a notebook to the races and write down things to remember for my diaries! 

Martin Keighley had a runner in the 6th race of the day – Rodrigo Gonzales who, unfortunately, finished last of the 5 finishers, Sonning Star having unseated Liam Treadwell 4 out.  The winner was Shakalakaboomboom, a treble on the day for Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty.

The final race of the day was a Conditional Jockeys’ Novices’ Handicap Hurdle, with Martin Keighley’s Won More Night a competitor.  She ran well for a long way, but faded from 4th to 9th place in the final straight, having been off the racecourse for nearly a year. 

I returned to my car and set off for home at 16:00.  Having delayed my departure for a few minutes to eat a brief snack, traffic had now built up on the road outside the main entrance, so there was a long queue to negotiate leading up to the roundabout below junction 1 of the M3.  However, I’d reached the M25 by 16:20. 

Being pre-rush hour, traffic was moving smoothly on the M25 until I approached Junctions 17 through 18, when the 4 lanes of traffic had to filter into 3 in preparation for the contra-flow on the other carriageway coming into operation.  Once through this, everything went smoothly again and I arrived home at 17:25.

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