I went by train to Sandown Park today.  This being the case, I left home to drive to the station at 8:30.  I parked my car at my place of work, which is only a five minute walk from the station, bought my ticket and caught the 8:48 to St Pancras, as the Thameslink tunnel was closed due to engineering works.  Once at St Pancras I took the Victoria Line to Warren Street, changing onto the Northern Line to Waterloo, arriving at 09:40.  My train to Woking, which called at Esher (Sandown Park), left at 09:50 arriving at my chosen station at 10:20.

Once at Esher station I followed my fellow passengers out onto the road, heading left to the main Portsmouth Road, turned right to the main Grandstand building and turnstiles, entry being £22 today.  I would, however, be interested to find out if the alternative route across the racecourse is a much quicker route although, of course, muddier!  Although I often have muddy shoes after a day at the races as I usually walk down to the rails to watch the action!

It was a bright, sunny morning, although the breeze was cold.  I decided to sit beside the Parade Ring with the Grandstand behind me acting as a windbreak.  The sun being low in the sky meant that I needed to wear my sunglasses.  Sandown Park was providing Christmas themed entertainment, with carol singing, and attractions for children – these included two Raymond Briggs characters, Father Christmas and the Snowman.   

Eventually I decided to change my seating position beside the Parade Ring, heading for the Winners’ Enclosure side, although this was much colder as I no longer had the Grandstand to provide shelter.  Whilst I was waiting there, I was approached by a reporter from the Racing Post, who was asking race-goers for their opinion of the Cross Country races at Cheltenham.  Yes, I would describe myself as a keen racing fan, although I’d only visited Cheltenham racecourse once.  I did think the Cross Country races were quite a good idea as it gave horses the opportunity to race under different conditions, as perhaps they might have lost interest in competing in standard races.  I mentioned the corner-cutting incident from the Open Meeting, although I gathered they had remedied that problem for the next event (taking place on the Friday of the Boylesports meeting).  I did think, though, that it favoured the Irish, who have a number of similar events at home. He did ask my name and where I came from ... so perhaps I made it into print in the Racing Post!

There was also a punters panel held in the Parade Ring before the first race, when Mick Fitzgerald, Claude Duval, and Barry Hurley from Seasons Holidays went through the card offering their views on the possible winners of the day.  

The first race was at 12:50, a 2 mile NH Novices’ Hurdle in which Choc’s ride was Blazing Desert, a large bay gelding, which had not shown much on its only previous run this season. Once Choc had mounted and was heading down the walkway, I went through the Surrey Hall, and out onto the tarmac area in front of the stands to watch the race, which at 2 miles, started at the beginning of the straight.  Because of the crowds, it was difficult today to arrive at my chosen viewing position before Choc had cantered past.

Once the race had started, Blazing Desert was held up towards the rear, making headway under pressure approaching 2 out, then kept on from the last, and took 3rd place towards the finish. The race was won by Clay Hollister, trained by Nicky Henderson, ridden by Tony McCoy. Choc having been placed, I headed for the Winners’ Enclosure as quickly as was possible, due to the shear volume of punters heading towards and through the Grandstand area.   However, I arrived in time to see Choc come back to the 3rd place position within the Winners’ Enclosure, unsaddle and disappear into the Weighing Room.

Choc’s second mount of the day was At The Money, for trainer J Eustace, in a 2 mile 6 furlong Handicap Hurdle.  The race commenced in the back straight, so the horses cantered down past the stands then turned across through the golf course to reach the start.  For this race I positioned myself by the rails.  Once they were off, Choc’s mount was prominent for most of the race, sometimes leading.  He was in the lead 3 out, but hit 2 out, was then headed between the last 2 flights, and weakened before the last, eventually finishing 5th. The winner was Mister Gloss, trained by Philip Hobbs, ridden by Tom O’Brien.  I had returned to the Winners’ Enclosure so did see Choc walk back with his saddle to the Weighing Room.

Choc’s third mount of the day was Araldur in the 2 mile Henry VIII Novices’ Steeplechase. Araldur is a big chestnut ... a big baby really, being just a 4-year old. Today he had 4 rivals.  I think the jockeys were running a little late, as the bell went almost as soon as they arrived in the Paddock.  So Alan and Choc started to walk across to find Choc’s mount but they were told to ‘stand-down’ for a couple of minutes, then the bell rang again. Once he was aboard and walking down the horse-walk, I set off to the rails beside the open-ditch so as to take a photo as the horses came over the fence.  The start, again, was at the beginning of the home straight.

Once they were off, Araldur took a keen hold, tracking the leading pair, and he went into 2nd place before the 3rd fence.  He bumped into his main rival, Free World, at the 8th, and was being ridden approaching 3 out, but then hit 2 out. However, despite being driven he stayed on gamely on the flat, taking the lead in the last few strides.  Victory for Choc, his 67th of the season, beating Tony McCoy on Free World in the driving finish.

I hurried through to the Winners’ Enclosure to get a good vantage point to take photos as Choc returned.  Once he’d unsaddled and spoken to the connections, he went to weigh in and change into his next ride’s colours but, as it was one of the feature events on the card, he came back out dressed in the Araldur colours over these silks to receive his race memento.  With photos taken, though unfortunately not by me as there were too many photographers obscuring him on the podium, he went over to the rail to be interviewed by Alistair Down from Channel 4 Racing.  I did get an opportunity to take photos now – as I love to take pictures when he’s not got his helmet on!  Interview completed, he returned to the Weighing Room prior to the next race.

With Sam Thomas having been despatched to Chepstow, Tony McCoy took the ride on Master Minded.  Choc’s mount was Twist Magic, with Christian Williams taking the ride on Paul Nicholls’ third runner, Takeroc.  There were 4 other rivals, including Tidal Bay, who had won this year’s Arkle Chase at Cheltenham.  In the paddock, with the jockeys standing with their respective owners, Paul briefed them separately.  Once they had mounted, I again went to position myself by the open-ditch hoping for a photo opportunity.  The horses galloped down past the stands to the 2 mile start.  Then they were off.

The German entry Fiepes Shuffle, under Jamie Moore, set off at break-neck speed, but fell at the first fence. The horse got to his feet, as did his jockey, but the loose animal was a persistent nuisance to Master Minded who led the race.  Unfortunately my hoped-for photo turned out to be blurred!  Choc’s mount was held up in 4th place, made headway 3 out, and was travelling well 2 lengths down when he fell 2 fences out.  It was a nasty fall for the horse, which had got too close to the fence and didn’t get his landing gear out in time, skidding along on landing, but both he and Choc were okay. Choc sat on the ground before getting up and starting to jog back – his foot must be feeling better now.  They had missed out the pond fence because of the low sun shining in the horses’/jockeys’ eyes, and had debated missing out the next as well – in hindsight a pity they didn’t!

I had moved further up the rail towards the finish during the race so that I could watch proceedings on the screen.  I took my eye off the jogging Choc, and when I looked again he had gone ... although I saw Jamie Moore jog back up the course past me.  Master Minded had won, with Tidal Bay second.  A double for Tony McCoy.  I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure anyway, but didn’t see Choc until he came out for the next race.

It was now time for the 5th race of the day – a Handicap Hurdle, in which Choc was riding King’s Revenge for Alan King. When Choc came into the Parade Ring he shook hands with the owner, and a young lad who was accompanying him.  The start of this 2 mile race was at the beginning of the home straight, so they cantered down past the stands, and I positioned myself by the rails.

Once they were off, King’s Revenge travelled mid-division, but was ridden and beaten when he hit the last 2 flights.  Choc finished 8th, the winner was Sunnyhillboy, another winner for Tony McCoy.  I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure and saw Choc walk in the Anita Cusack, Travelling Head Lad, who collected his kit before returning to the stables.  My last glimpse of Choc for the day.

The final race of the day was the ‘London National’, a 3 mile 5 furlong Steeplechase.  No ride in this event for Choc.  I again positioned myself by the open-ditch.  The race was won by Kilbeggan Blade, ridden by Tony McCoy – 4 winners on the day.  I returned to the Winners’ Enclosure for one last time before exiting via the Grandstand entrance to walk back to the station.

The platform at the station was very crowded.  I had to wait for around 15 minutes for a train to arrive, and we were packed like sardines for the first couple of stations – standing room only. It wasn’t much of an improvement until we arrived at Vauxhall, where I believe you can change onto the Victoria Line.  However, I stayed on until Waterloo, and caught a crowded underground train (although I did get a seat) to Euston, changing for Kings Cross. Once at St Pancras International I walked along to one of the upper platforms, where the Bedford train was waiting, and I caught it with just 2 minutes to spare.

I arrived at my home station, then drove home, arriving at around 18:10.

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