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Saturday dawned bright and sunny, with a brisk breeze but luckily no frost.  Choc had 3 rides scheduled for Sandown Park – the talented Araldur for Alan King; According to John for Nicky Richards; and Almaydan for Richard Lee.

Having braved the train on my trip to Sandown Park on Tingle Creek day, I decided it was just too expensive and time consuming to travel by that mode of transport to the venue.  It isn’t as though I haven’t tried to be ‘green’; but fares have also increased by above inflation from my local train station – so I’m hardly receiving any encouragement!  And there is the ‘sardines’ situation on the trains on the way home to consider too ...

So, as I hate queuing when filling up my car at the local supermarket; I set out to the petrol station just after 07:30; then returned home to prepare for my day’s racing at Sandown Park.  As the gates opened at 11:30 (2 hours before the first race), I didn’t need to leave home until 10:30 at the earliest.  I was able to catch most of The Morning Line too, with special guest Richard Johnson. 

I set out at 10:35, although there was a traffic holdup on the far side of my home City, but once I’d joined the M25 the journey was very good with no further traffic problems.  As I was early, the road into Esher was clear and I took advantage of the free car parking available in the centre of the racecourse.

Having put on my fleece, gillet and coat, making 9 layers in total (I probably resemble ‘Michelin man’ or should that be woman when I go to the races), I set out to purchase my general admission ticket, costing £18, before crossing the course to arrive at the vast tarmac area in front of the stands, where I also purchased the obligatory race-card from the kiosk.

As I now know Sandown Park fairly well, and having walked through the grandstand concourse, I decided to climb up the stairs situated beside the Television Studio, and walk around to the balcony area to sit on a bench overlooking the Parade Ring.  The sun was shining brightly and although there was a stiff breeze, the grandstand was protecting me from the worst of the latter.  At 13:00 the ‘In the Spotlight’ presentation took place, and I remained seated on the bench until the horses started to arrive in the paddock in preparation for the first race. 

My preferred position by the Parade Ring is with my back to the Winners’ Enclosure/Weighing Room area, so this is where I sat myself.  Choc’s first ride of the day, Araldur, was entered in the third race, so I had plenty of time to just enjoy the non-stressful build-ups and running of the first two races.   

The odds-on favourite in the first race (a Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle) was Optimus Maximus, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Barry Geraghty. When the race began, Amore Mio under Tom Siddall took up the running, with Barry’s mount racing keenly in 2nd spot.   

In fact Amore Mio led all the way and won well, a victory for trainer Emma Lavelle.  Optimus Maximus finished 2nd, with Forget It in 3rd.  I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to see the horses come back.  The horse’s owner and Emma were not at Sandown Park today so the race trophy was accepted by the guy in charge of transporting the horse to the course!  This win paid a compliment to Zaynar, Amore Mio having chased him home at Ascot recently.  Zaynar is currently at the head of the Triumph Hurdle betting list ahead of Alan King’s Walkon.

The second race, the Contenders’ Hurdle, was aimed at horses with Champion Hurdle aspirations.  The favourite was Celestial Halo, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Ruby Walsh.  I thought the horse was definitely the pick of the paddock.  Osana, runner-up to Katchit in the 2008 Champion Hurdle, was making his first appearance of the current campaign.  Also in the field was last year’s winner Afsoun, who had completed the course at Haydock Park last time out, having taken a fall in his previous 2 racecourse appearances, one over fences and one over hurdles (Choc was onboard in the latter race at Kempton Park on Boxing Day).

Once the race had started, Osana (Paddy Brennan) took up his customary position at the head of the field.  He was tracked by Celestial Halo (Ruby Walsh) and Afsoun (Barry Geraghty).  Osana held the lead until overtaken 2 flights from home by Ruby’s mount, which went on to win.  Osana stayed on the finish 2nd, with Afsoun 3rd.

I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to see the horses return, before walking over to the side of the Parade Ring in preparation for the next race.  This was Choc’s first ride of the day, and he was aboard the talented novice, Araldur.  He had five rivals, Will Be Done having been withdrawn as he held an entry at Wetherby, where he finished 2nd.  Araldur was trying the distance of 2 miles 4½ furlongs for the first time.  When the jockeys entered the Parade Ring very few of their owners/trainers had arrived, so it was ‘little boy lost’ for a number of them!

Once Choc was mounted, I headed through the grandstand concourse to reach the course-side rails beside the open-ditch.  The race start was situated just before the ‘railway fences’ so Choc cantered down the course in front of me to reach it.   

When the race began, it was led off by the Paul Nicholls’ runner Herecomesthetruth, ridden by Ruby Walsh, with Choc travelling at the back of the field.  Araldur made a slight mistake at the 3rd fence.  As they turned the corner to travel away from the stands, Herecomesthetruth cocked his jaw, but Ruby drove him on, not getting caught out like he had been at Cheltenham 3 runs ago when the horse ran out.  Unfortunately Pressgang, with Dominic Elsworth aboard, fell at the fence on the downhill stretch of the course, and despite getting to its feet, the horse was fatally injured. 

Down the back straight, Buck the Legend made a mistake, as did Massini’s Maguire (Richard Johnson) who relinquished his lead having headed Ruby’s mount.  Choc sent Araldur into second place but weakened after 3 fences out (the pond fence).  As they approached the last, Massini’s Maguire still had ground to make up on Herecomesthetruth, but they both battled to the line, with the latter holding on to win by a nose.  Araldur and Buck the Legend fought out third place, with the latter prevailing, despite a mistake at the last.

As Choc had finished 4th he returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to unsaddle.  So I returned through the concourse to stand on the shallow steppings around the small amphitheatre area to see him return. Once Choc had spoken to Alan and the owners of his mount, and had disappeared inside the Weighing Room, I walked back over to the Parade Ring in preparation for the next event.

The 4th race of the day was a Handicap Hurdle over a distance of 2 miles 6 furlongs, with 14 runners competing.  AP McCoy’s intended mount, Afrad, was a non-runner, which was a slight set-back in his quest to attain 3,000 jump race winners, currently being 2 short of that target. 

Having been held up in rear for much of the race, Chief Yeoman, ridden by Aiden Coleman and trained by Venetia Williams, won handily.  I had noticed the horse in the Parade Ring prior to the race, noticeable by the fact that the animal was ‘unremarkable’ – dark brown, trace clipped and very plain looking.  But it was a typical Venetia Williams type of horse.  Handsome is, as handsome does, I suppose.

It was now time for the 5th race of the day.  Choc’s ride in this event, a 3 mile chase, was According to John.  The horse is trained by Nicky Richards, and owned by Sir Robert Ogden, and had been off the racecourse for 446 days.  As the owner wasn’t at the races today, and presumably the trainer was at either Wetherby or Doncaster, Choc was left to speak with one sole representative from the yard when he entered the Parade Ring.

A camera crew and photographers were following AP around in the Parade Ring, as there was the possibility he would reach his 3,000th National Hunt winner today.  Once Choc was legged up, he took a full circuit of the paddock before exiting along the walkway to reach the course.  I set off in the direction of the grandstand, and once again headed to the area close to the open-ditch ready to take a photograph as the field jumped the fence near the end of their first circuit. 

When the race began, Eric’s Charm led them off.  Choc dropped his horse in at the back of the field.  Gungadu was a casualty, unshipping Harry Skelton at the 13th fence, and New Little Bric blundered 5 fences from home.  As they jumped the pond fence, Monkerhostin was challenging Eric’s Charm for the lead (Eric’s Charm and Monkerhostin being half brothers, having the same dam).  Can’t Buy Time was cruising just in behind them.  According to John had jumped well and had made progress through the field too by the 17th fence.  Can’t Buy Time jumped the last in front and galloped up the hill to win from Eric’s Charm (AP McCoy’s mount), with the grey Lacdoudal in 3rd and Choc mount in 4th.

Again, as Choc had finished placed, he returned to the Winners’ Enclosure so I returned to see him unsaddle and disappear inside the Weighing Room before returning to the Parade Ring ready to view the horses entered in the next race. 

Choc’s 3rd and final ride of the day was aboard Almaydan, trained by Richard Lee, in the 2 mile chase.  Choc had won aboard this horse at Doncaster 8 days previously.  Richard’s son, Tom, who often appears as a presenter on Channel 4’s The Morning Line, was assisting his father today. Once Choc was legged up, he did a circuit of the paddock before setting off down the walkway to reach the course.  Again I decided to position myself near the open-ditch so that I could take a photograph, although the light was fading by this time. 

Being a 2 mile event, the race started at the bottom of the home straight, so Choc and his mount cantered down past me to reach it.  Once they were off, the Venetia Williams trained Lorient Express led the field, with Almaydan racing on the outside in 3rd or 4th position.  They jumped the open-ditch (2nd fence) and I heard Choc shouting to his colleagues as they passed me and galloped away up the straight.  I Hear a Symphony, ridden by Richard Johnson, fell at the 4th fence, hampering Sou’wester.  Sadly Killaghy Castle fell at the 9th and was fatally injured. 

Choc was in 5th place as they entered the straight, Lorient Express was still in the lead, and was being chased by Nikola.  Having led all the way, Venetia’s charge went on to win, Nikola finished 2nd, Choc attained 3rd place, with Sou’wester 4th.  A double on the day for jockey and trainer, the latter having hit a rich vein of form recently.

I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure for the final time today to watch Choc dismount, unsaddle his horse and speak with Richard Lee and the owners.  He then headed for the Weighing Room, saddle over his left arm and holding Almaydan’s blue blinkers in his right hand.  Having seen him for the last time today, I set off through the concourse, down across the tarmac and over the home straight (which I noted was still in very good condition having not been badly damaged by galloping hooves) to reach my car, which was parked in the area close to the golf range. 

I find it difficult to decide whether it is better to just join the queue of traffic exiting the course or to wait for the queue to clear slightly.  As I’d done last Saturday, I waited, and not having eaten since just before I left home, I decided to take some time out to drink a cup of black coffee and eat half a bag of pretzels. Some youngsters, who appeared to be associated with the golf range, got their car stuck on the grass to the side of the car park area and had to be rescued by a member of the Sandown Park maintenance team. 

At 17:15 I finally decided it was time to leave.  The queue had cleared just slightly, no longer reaching back to my section of the car park, but it was still within the confines of the racecourse.  It took me until 17:55 to travel through Esher and to reach the M25.  Being a Saturday, the M25 was clear and I reached home at 18:45.  I watched the recording of Sandown races on Racing UK, uploaded my photos and updated my blog before turning in for the night.  I recall tuning in to the movie ‘Troy’ too, although I wasn’t giving it much attention – as Brad Pitt does nothing for me – although I have a vague recollection that he reminded me of Choc when I watched Legends of the Fall recently!

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