Last Friday at Newbury proved once again that as a template for a great afternoon with friends, going racing is hard to beat. Mike and I caught the 12:10 and remembered the rubric of his grandfather, who always used to say “number 7 wins the first race”. The horse burdened with testing the theory in the Juvenile Hurdle was Zante, an unraced four-year-old from the Gary Moore stable.

At this point Mike’s eye was drawn to the couple sitting next to us. The gentleman was wearing a Heart Of The South Racing badge – the syndicate that owned none other than Zante. My punters instinct kicked in and I was immediately firing a thousand questions at the poor couple about ownership in general and the horse in particular.

“Gary’s only had him six weeks, and he seems to be working well but we don’t really know,” said the chap without conviction, “it’s just a bit of fun.” We wondered whether this was code for ‘it’s a dead cert’.

Their most famous horse was Fruity O’Rooney who was an enthusiastic chaser, good enough to win nine times and be placed at the Cheltenham Festival. The horse had just been retired after picking up a minor injury in his last race, but they confided that the 13 year old seemed unimpressed with his new status and the syndicate was considering whether he should be retrained.

Mike had secured a package deal on the tickets which included vouchers for racecards, drinks, food and Tote betting. Although it would be hard to describe them as free, somehow it felt liberating to be handing over cardboard instead of cash, like equine Monopoly money. The Placepot was selected, the new Guinness Golden Ale was not particularly pleasant, and the Hog Roast was rather mediocre, but the atmosphere was perfect. Enough punters filled the Berkshire Stand to give the place energy, but it was still easy to get a drink and a bet and a look at them in the paddock. My sort of day’s racing.

We ventured out into the crisp March afternoon to examine our choice for the first race. Zante wasn’t an imposing sort, and seemed to be holding the others up as he circled the ring at a leisurely saunter, but we weren’t to be put off. We realised that the chestnut gelding was just saving his energy for the race, and Mike suggested that the couple on the train were being coy about his chances.

As we went to get our bets on I saw Rupert, or Sir Rupert Mackeson to you. If you go racing a lot you too will probably know Rupert, the mature and slightly eccentric character who sells books and racing prints from a stall at various courses around the country. His Wikipedia entry certainly makes for interesting reading and could have been the inspiration for some of the latest Bond movies.

I had the rare pleasure of sitting next to him for an afternoon at Newbury in December as we both struggled to sell books to a small and often indifferent audience. Without prompting, he gave me the full benefit of his wisdom on a vast array of topics, including tips for selling books and his forthright opinions on various racing personalities who weaved their way through our conversations.

As Mike and I approached he was putting the finishing touches to a yoghurt collage that was now adorning his chin and fleece, and again freely offered his thoughts on a range of topics, including my book which he had kindly bought and read. I could have stayed there longer receiving insight and abuse in equal measure, but had to get a bet on the winner of the first. Zante was available at a generous 9/1 for a horse that couldn’t lose, and the result was never in doubt, by which I mean that he was never going to win from a long way out and finished sixth behind the 25/1 winner Nabhan who was beaten 186 lengths at Chepstow last time. Funny game, this.

Mike and I returned to the bar in a perplexed state where a sign advised customers to pace themselves, which we took to mean no more than one pint between each race. This time I tried the amusingly-named Frank-ale, which was quite nice. It looked a tricky punting day, with the ground drying out from its winter drenching and turning slightly tacky (gluey, that is, not cheap and nasty). We managed to avoid some short-priced favourites that got turned over, but also avoided their conquerors.

Hell’s Kitchen won the next for leading owner JP McManus, and then as we approached the stands for the next there was JP himself, spearheading a gaggle in a long, black overcoat like a Mafia boss. Stood next to him was no less than Sir Anthony McCoy, and I felt vaguely privileged to share the same concrete step with these two horse-racing glitterati. I asked JP if he’d backed his Strongly Suggested in the third race that was about to start.

“What? At that price?” he asserted of the friendless 20/1 shot in his soft Irish brogue. No, good point JP – if you’d backed him he probably wouldn’t still be 20/1. But I smelt a scoop for my adoring readership and went in for the kill.

“Which of yours do you fancy most at the Festival?”

At this point McCoy marched off in sulky fashion. I’m not sure whether he was upset that he wasn’t getting the attention, or whether he’d worked out that I was the guy who had been fairly blunt about him in my Sandown blog last year.

“Ah well, I’ll have to wait and see what the ground is first, you know.” JP mused.

“Well, they say they’re going to water.” I replied.

I’m not sure why I said that, as I hadn’t heard anything this year about Cheltenham watering before the Festival, but hoped that my source of ‘they’ was vague enough to not be countermanded by the legendary punter. Perhaps I just wanted to sound knowledgeable about the course’s over-effective drainage system, I’m not sure. JP raised his eyebrows and shot me a sideways glance, like he was putting up with the inane ramblings of a clown at a racecourse whilst trying to watch his horse.

“Is that what they say?” he intoned.

“That’s what they say.” I affirmed.

As incisive investigative journalism goes, our exchange was light on conclusions, but I thought I’d better let the man watch the end of the race in peace. Strongly Suggested finished last of the nine finishers. JP drifted off quietly with his entourage in tow. I didn’t see either him or AP again, and strangely they didn’t return to the same spot in the stands for the later races.

I decided that the form was incomprehensible on the changing ground and that we would choose our selections for the fourth race based purely on their appearance in the paddock. 3, 4 and 5 looked outstanding to me but I couldn’t back them all so plumped for Long Lunch as he had the longest odds. Mike was convinced 7, 9 and 12 looked fit and ready. This wasn’t the conclusive result I was looking for. On the way back trackside we bumped into Julian Thick, Newbury’s Chief Executive who had been extremely generous with his time in a Royal Box exclusive interview early in my tour almost a year ago. He said that my book was on top of his ‘to read’ pile at home. The pile next to the log-burner, I enquired?

I secured 12/1 about Long Lunch who was beaten 36 lengths in eighth place. Mystifiable. That was the name of the horse that won, who Mike had backed for the first winner of the day. We celebrated the victory in the same way as we had commiserated over our previous losers; it was another disciplined nod to our clever strategy of ‘pacing ourselves’. The next two races were both won by horses who had been pulled up on their previous runs. Mystifying (the form, that is, not the name of either of the winners).

Mike suggested Canoodle in the bumper, which I politely declined. We’d had a great afternoon but there was no need to overdo it at the end. Canoodle won at 12/1 and Mike was in profit after his second winner, a fact he reminded me of no more than 17 times later that evening. The train back was busy, but the coincidences had run out, other than the usual one of me returning from the races with a significantly lighter wallet.

The sun sets on a good day at Newbury

The sun sets on a good day at Newbury

(One 5% share is still available in Zante at £1,850 with fully inclusive training fees of £120 per month. Visit the Heart Of The South Racing website at