Until last Friday, I hadn’t been racing since I finished my eighty day odyssey, a gap of almost five months. It’s not that I’d had enough of it. I’ve been busy, and to be honest I usually take a break over the summer. But the beginning of a new jumps season lured me to a new-look Cheltenham for its first meeting since the completion of its £45m facelift. Gold Cup day was the first stop on my tour back in March, and what a disappointing one it was too. I’d almost fallen out of love with the place that had been my favourite course for a generation, following an unsettling and claustrophobic experience on that most crowded of days.
The October meeting, or the Showcase as the marketing people now like to call it, was always my favourite of the season anyway. There is something refreshing about starting again, with renewed energy and hopes for the year ahead. Whatever the racing calendar officially decides, late October is when my horse racing year begins. There is always that faint whiff of expectation about the place, that I might spot a young horse who I follow through the slings and arrows of equine fortune to a fairytale ending back at Cheltenham in the Spring. I was intrigued to discover how I would take to my racing again, in a new post-absurd-personal-challenge era.
I boarded the train at Reading with a sprinkling of other racing types, and by 10:01 the season had truly started. I sat near a table of guys working at laptops, but soon their conversation turned to racing and the boundaries between work meeting and race meeting began to blur. Then one of them suggested a beer from the buffet car.
“I’m driving at the other end so I’m not going silly.” he reassured his surprised colleagues.
“Not going silly?” replied one of them incredulously, “It’s 10 o’clock!”
I met Ivan and Dave at the station, and smiles were exchanged in recognition of something wonderful beginning again. I knew in that moment that my self-enforced hiatus from the sport was over, and the merry-go-round was turning once more. My love for racing could not be squeezed out of me by a three-month stint of overexposure. We waited for Matt’s train to arrive and then took a taxi to the Sandford, a favourite pub of Ivan’s that serves a fine range of ales and lagers. We sat at a large table, were joined by Chris and others, and the conversation drifted easily from football to beer to form-studying. Old horses and anecdotes were brought out and dusted off, almost like a ritual to open proceedings and bring the congregation together – Rhinestone Cowboy and Pizarro, Court Minstrel, Playschool, Dublin Flyer, and of course the Zaitoon story in all its ugly glory.
Chris drove us to the course, which thanks to the clever new traffic scheme seemed to involve going via Tewkesbury. At least approaching via the north entrance meant I could survey the much-fabled ‘open piazza’. It was certainly spacious, but my eye was drawn, as was Best Mate’s as he stood rigid in his bronze costume, to the impressive new paddock area. A stunning new bridge over the horse walkway afforded spectacular views of both the parade ring and the course, and my mind skipped forwards to future Festival winners being cheered in from this elevated vantage point. The new stand was completed, and the viewing areas around the paddock had been transformed with tiered galleries creating an amphitheatre of expectation. Of course, the real test will come at the busier meetings later in the season, but it was hard to not be impressed with developments.
The first race, a Class 2 novice hurdle, was a mixture of useful young sorts moving up in class and more experienced animals with closely matched form. Penglai Pavillion was less exposed, having had only two runs so far and winning both by a combined total of 35 lengths. He seemed like the most likely to be a superstar in the making, and he proved it under a fine ride from Aiden Coleman for the in-form John Ferguson. Not all good flat horses (and this was a very good one, finishing fifth to Treve in the 2013 Arc) make great hurdlers, so I wouldn’t get too excited just yet, but he won more easily than the official distance of four and a half lengths suggested.
Perhaps it was the two hours of form studying on the train, or perhaps it was just the mental break that had done me good, but my punting mind seemed sharper than it had for most of my eighty day quest. I told myself it was a tricky race and I wouldn’t back him at less than 2/1. As it was I got 11/4 and my first bet of the season was a nice winner. There was only one thing to do next, and that was celebrate in the Centaur, the cavernous indoor arena at the heart of Prestbury Park, where there was a Cotswold food and drink shindig rumoured to be in progress. As we entered, Ivan’s eyes lit up as he spied an army of barrels lined up at the far end.
It was time for a late lunch, and I opted for the slow-cooked (to the extent of 9 hours!) lamb pitta from the nearby Nolan Brook farm, and lovely it was too. It was accompanied by a pint of Codger from the intriguingly named ‘Combined Breweries’. I wondered whether the local microbreweries had adopted the French wine cooperative model of combining harvests, and it was certainly a roaringly drinkable success if this was the case.
In the next I backed the outsider of three, and for a small race it was about as good as you could get with all three line-abreast at the last fence, but the favourite stayed on up the hill. However, it was the third race that proved to be race of the day, and could possibly prove to be one of the most extraordinary races of the entire season. It was a tricky 3 mile handicap hurdle with 12 runners. I had a decent bet on Mr Shantu at 5/1, the six-year old benefitting from the application of a tongue strap two starts ago, and with apprentice Patrick Cowley taking a useful 7 pounds off. I like horses who possess a clear reason to improve, and despite a 10 pound rise for his latest win I thought he could still be ahead of the handicapper. I also had a saver on Dark Spirit at the unusual odds of 13/1. He was trained by the in-form Evan Williams, also benefitted from a 10 pound claim, and had some decent form last season, including a staying on seventh in the mares hurdle at the Festival.
The race was bubbling up nicely as they came to the top of the hill on the second circuit when Saint John Henry fell, brought down King Boru, and badly hampered Mr Shantu who virtually came to a standstill and lost about 15 lengths. Astonishingly, he was soon back on the bridle and had caught up by the bottom of the hill, powering around the bend and into the lead at the final flight. But then the tank emptied, and Dark Spirit who had been travelling ominously well, found a gap and went on close home, beating the most unfortunate Mr Shantu by a couple of lengths. I had secured a 13/1 winner, but had lost out on a bigger payday and threw my paper on the floor in a fit of pique, which was unlike me really. I regained my composure with another Codger in the Centaur, and noted a great ride by Lewis Gordon on the winner.
The fascinating and competitive racing continued. I had a small bet on Weather Babe as the 33/1 outsider of seven in the tricky looking novice chase. I had backed her at Stratford at the end of my eighty day quest, and thought she had a chance in an open looking contest. Staying on, she jumped ahead at the last, only to be mown down by the similarly unfancied Shantou Flyer up the hill. For the second race running, I was so near and yet so far. A guy behind me was urging on the winner and later told me he’d backed him to win £1,500, which made me feel better about my losing fiver. I’m too nice, sometimes.
I left before the last to catch the train, jumping into a taxi with a father and son. The 10 year old, Ted, was missing school because of a ‘dentists appointment’, apparently not for the first time as his teeth had also required visits to racecourses in Ireland during term time. Not surprisingly, he said he loved horse racing, and I wondered whether I should have bribed my uninterested boys into enjoying the sport with days off of school. I asked him his favourite course and he said Cheltenham. Me too, I thought, faith restored.
On the crowded train home, I overheard a fascinating scene playing out behind me. An old guy introduced himself as Charles to a Mum and son sitting nearby. The usual questions about what sport the 7 year old liked brought muted responses, before Mum interjected that her son was more artistic and liked ballet dancing. Blake seemed slightly embarrassed that this information was relayed to an entire train carriage, but Charles was having none of it.
“We’re all going to die,” an unusual start to a conversation with a child, I thought, but Charles continued, “and everything you achieve between now and then comes down to what you believe. Doctors, nurses, teachers, builders – all these people help the world function, and very worthy they are too, but artists are what make the world joyful!”
Blake explained that he liked art too, and that he had visited the Dismaland attraction, but admitted to being scared by some of the exhibits.
“Yeah, but you’re going to be scared through life, and you’re going to learn to say sod it. You’re best asset is sat next to you. You’re going to make her very proud,” advised Charles before pausing, obviously with an exchange of glances with Mum, before adding, “you already have.”
With that the train pulled into Swindon and Mum, Blake and I left Charles to inspire more strangers on his mystical journey south. It was a quite magical interaction in the bedlam of a busy train, and one that I suspect young Blake will remember for a long time.