After a misunderstanding on the tickets, I panic-changed into jacket and tie to join the immaculately turned out Andrew, Maura and girls for the Prince’s Countryside Fund Raceday. The website promised, somewhat alarmingly, a day “giving children an appreciation of where their food comes from.” Our lunch came from The Stag on the High Street, and the children did indeed seem to appreciate it.
I offer my goddaughter Charlotte a £5 note to either put towards her savings for a laptop, or gamble on the horses. She opts for the latter – that’s my girl! This seems a simpler arrangement than the exchange-traded horse-racing derivatives that her father has offered her in a complicated loan scheme, but she copes with both situations admirably.
Over lunch conversation turns to my ludicrous challenge. The direct interrogator that is youngest-sister Annabel fires two questions at me. I just about get away with the “What are you doing?” but am completely flummoxed by the follow-up “Why?” Day 16 and I still haven’t had my epiphany.
New ideas for my next quest include eating a hamburger in all the different states of America. Andrew dubs it “A Round Neil In Eighty Days” – hilarious this guy. Doesn’t he understand the food demons I fight every day? I even order the roast chicken in the pub instead of the roast pork to save points! We are joined by Brian and son Jack. They order after us but their meals arrive first; this is not a good omen for the betting later on. Jack tells me that Special Agent will win the first.
We meet Clive and Simon at the track. Simon has his own unique history with Ascot, having become uninterested in proceedings in the latter stages of Gold Cup day a few years ago. His homing-pigeon instincts got him to the station where he would attempt the journey home to Wimbledon. He awoke some time later, after some encouragement from the train driver who had parked up for the night, and asked where he was. “Wimbledon sidings, Sir” was the reply.
Charlotte chooses Paddy The Deejay in the first race who runs really well, but is beaten by the Queen’s horse Special Agent. This is young Jack’s first time horse racing, and I sincerely hope that he doesn’t chase the high of that first win for the rest of his life. As it turns out, he doesn’t have to wait more than half an hour for his second hit.
Clive and I have backed the unusually-named Thomas Crapper a few times at Cheltenham, and last time out he put up a really good performance at the Festival. That’s good enough for me in the second race of only four horses, but not good enough to beat Puffin Billy in a photo finish. Jack’s eyes dance wildly with excitement.
Following on from Doncaster yesterday, this is now the fourth photo finish out of four that has gone against me on my tour. At least we got our money’s worth with some obvious toilet humour about “another bet down the drain” and regretting “having a large one on the Crapper”. Tammy joins in on text, inbetween panic gambling her bets in to me: “I knew you’d have to get that joke out of your cistern”.
This is my twelfth racecourse and the form-lines are just beginning to connect together like frozen synapses in the thaw. I scour the next race for some information from the preceeding fortnight and try to sound insightful to Clive and Simon as I mention “This Jeanpascal in the next, won very nicely at Warwick you know”. I forget to mention that is was a three-runner slog in the mud, and that I was going to desert him today to back the Pipe horse in first-time blinkers. Unaccountably, when I catch up with them they are eagerly holding a ticket at 33/1 to a not insignificant stake on Jeanpascal. I know these guys well enough to not feel one shred of guilt when it runs a truly awful race before being pulled up.
Andrew reappears proudly sporting a flat cap of his own. Somehow he seems to carry it off rather well. I suggest to Maura that she gets him a pipe for his birthday. He really seems to be throwing himself into the theme of the day. Later he shows off a shooting target with five neatly clustured holes around the bullseye. We are all suitably impressed until he explains the target was about 15 feet away. I hope this is not connected to the earlier promise of “giving children an appreciation of where their food comes from.”
The falconry display isn’t quite as exciting as a few years ago when an owl mistook a young child that was dragging the bait for the bait itself. It got a whack from the brave lad that it was attacking, and flew off in a huff to sit on top of the grandstand for half an hour. Health and safety seems to have neutered the event and it now consists of a single bird of prey that is only marginally disruptive and isn’t allowed to chase children.
Towards the end of the afternoon my assorted comrades fail to stop me buying a lurid yellow polyester scarf, supposedly in the colours of my beloved One Man (at least that’s what the sign said). This is the sort of situation where you need your friends to step in and stop you making an arse of yourself, but these are the same friends that said I looked stylish when I tried on my flat cap at the end of a Sandown afternoon last year. And the same friends that I stitched up earlier with Jeanpascal. Fair enough.
On the way out Simon is denied a free chocolate bunny on account of him not being a child. I could have begged to differ, but it was time to go home.