Those of you that are still concentrating (do keep up, there will be a test at the end) may be confused as to why I’m in Fakenham when it was scheduled to be the finale to my quest. You’ll be pleased to learn that you haven’t slept through the alarm and woken up four weeks later. I needed to re-jig the itinerary, so although today was meant to be Catterick, that shall now form part of my ‘Scottish Swing’, it being only a stone’s throw from Hadrian’s Wall (assuming you can throw a stone a really long way).
I stay overnight at The Bull Inn, which I discover doesn’t have a car park or evening food, but I’ll let it off on both counts as it does have a friendly welcome and Bitburger on draught. Fakenham itself does have car parks and food, and quite a selection too, so I manage to find a salad takeaway (ahem) and return to the pub where they kindly give me an Alan Partridge sized plate (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen the episode set in the Linton Travel Tavern) to eat my supper.
I awake to find that I have a puncture. Possibly. My car that is (I haven’t burst from eating too much take away, not yet anyway). It could just be the Fakenham Yoof having their fun, or even my tyres themselves having a laugh at my expense. Just like the engine, if I don’t pay them enough attention they play tricks like this, but I have a clever box in the boot that starts the engine and inflates the tyres when they’re throwing tantrums, which so far has demonstrated no attention seeking behaviour itself.
As the box chugs away noisily I survey Fakenham in daylight, when the dirt bikes no longer use the town centre as a racetrack. There are an extraordinary number of hairdressers, including Alan who “pleases people everyday” and has posters underneath this sign saying “OH! OH! OH! OH!” to prove his point. I fancy a coffee whilst I catch up with stuff, and search for a Starbucks or Costa. I’m not sure why really, because I get confused in them when ordering, but in foreign lands you grasp at normality. And wifi. Instead, I find Gallery Bistro on Market Place and I’m glad that I did. When I ask the efficient and friendly chap for a coffee he understands that I just want a coffee, and very good it is too.
I drive cautiously to the racecourse and check the pressure – all quiet on the Goodyear front. I’ve made a lot of the wind so far on my journey, but this really is a proper gale. Just before the first it’s strong enough to blow over Wigmore Racing’s coin tray, which brings cheers from the stands and a sour face from the bookie. In the second race I again detect that the prices are wrong and favour Alright Benny at 5/1 over Waddington Hero at 5/4, and this time I’m right. I celebrate with a Cromer crab sandwich from Weston’s of Blakeney. This brings back memories of family holidays on the beach and the little racing cars that went about half a mile an hour but seemed thrilling. I also quickly remember that I don’t particularly like crab, but eating only half a lunch helps the diet I suppose.
However, today is all about Hunt Ball. This lovely bay gelding caused quite a stir a few seasons ago as it racked up 7 wins from 8 races and rattled up the ratings accordingly, going up an astonishing 93 pounds in the handicap. His eccentric owner, Anthony Knott, attracted almost as much publicity as he enthusiastically rode the exponential bandwagon to it’s crescendo, reputedly winning and losing millions on massive bets struck on his horse. Cattle farmer Knott was a breath of fresh air in the sometimes stuffy world of racehorse ownership, infamously incurring the wrath of the stewards after one win when he got so excited that he jumped on the back of the horse behind the jockey and started punching the air like Pele scoring in the World Cup.
But the fairytale began to fade. Following a Cheltenham Festival win in 2012 Hunt Ball continued to run with credit, but generally found life a lot tougher with his elevated handicap mark. Knott put him up for sale where he was bought to race in America, but a year later he returns to Blighty and the care of Nicky Henderson, and again puts in some decent performances in defeat.
Which brings us to today where he faces just three rivals switched back to hurdles. The heart of the matter is whether Hunt Ball’s unquestionable class over the bigger obstacles can translate to a first win over the smaller ones. It was really never in doubt, and the old favourite triumphs for the first time in over two years.
So it seems that switching things around really can pay dividends. I mull this thought over as I drive back from the Norfolk venue, hoping that Around The Races In Seventy-Eight Days shall be if anything more impressive than 80, even if not quite as catchy shortened to ATRISED. At the least, it may have scuppered the ideas of anybody planning a 79 day campaign to steal my limelight. Stratford now has the dubious honour of being my last port of call on Friday 29 May, a little over three weeks away, and for the first time there is just a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.