Eric picks me up for the taxi to the station. A big Welsh bear of a man, he has driven me and my family around for over 10 years now. He also likes the horses, so I tell him about my quest. He lists the courses he’s been to, and there are many. I ask him his favourite.
“Ohhh, Sedgefield,” he says, “best day of my life, that was!”
That’s quite a statement. I wonder at the extraordinary happenings to make it the best of his many days on this planet.
“Well, you need to go to Sedgefield village first, and they’ve got a bakers there. It was the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever had! I even took one home for the wife!”
I’ve been to Fontwell twice before, and on both occasions it was in homage to a great man named Bill. The first was in the early days of teaching. I’d been sent on a course to Southampton to discover how to tell colleagues that their lesson I’d just observed was only satisfactory, which of course means unsatisfactory. Frankly, I’d got bored half way through the day, but I’d already spotted Fontwell was racing that afternoon which may have clouded my opinion of the morning session.
I arrived unannounced and found Bill sat at the corner of the bar sipping coffee. For most of his life he had cherished the harder stuff, but had been sober for several years by then. He took a second to eye me up and down, and I knew we would have a great afternoon. We did, up until I blurted out that his unborn grandchild would be a boy and he gave me a withering look (and one that I’d received many times before) that told me he didn’t yet have, or wanted to have, that information. The fool on the hill he called me, and I quite liked it.
The second time was in early 2009. Bill had died a year earlier and Paul had dealt remarkably well with the loss of his father. We had organised an outing for his family and friends, and Paul and his brother Callum sponsored a race in his memory: “The Bill Hart Memorial Selling Hurdle”. They organised a minibus from Portsmouth and adjudged the best turned out in the paddock, and Paul wrote a beautiful piece in the racecard. That afternoon it unexpectedly started snowing, and it didn’t stop. I was enormously lucky to find a taxi from North Camp when the trains ground to a halt, and to this day I don’t know whether the poor driver perished on the Hogs Back after dropping me home.
The dropping of my new iPhone6 down the loo has complicated matters logistically, but somehow we meet on Platform 4. We discuss the important issues of the day, such as who had ‘won’ the leaders debate and how to mix the perfect pint of gin and tonic. We agree that it should be ice first, and then guess the rest from there. That’s the gin and tonic, rather than the leaders debate, which we can’t agree on. Paul is extraordinarily adept at inducing great conversations. As I reach for my notepad he worries that I am about to start sketching him, but I refrain from asking him to slip his clothes off and perch on a table with only a can of ready-mixed G&T to protect his modesty.
Amazingly, we successfully claim the first three races between us and celebrate with a late lunch in the very fine and spacious facilities. For the avoidance of doubt, this is our only lunch, although I did have an early tea later. Paul opts for the fish and chips, which he is very pleased with, and plays a game at the end where he tries to swipe a pea through a hole in his cardboard tray which is about the size of a 10p piece. I’ve never played this game myself, but it seems quite easy. Paul, however, is delighted when he succeeds.
We really have the fifth race sewn up between us. It has to be between the top three on the racecard and in the betting. I’ve seen Xaarcet a few times on my travels, and as noble a beast as he is, he can’t win – he’s been running too consistently to drop in the weights. So it’s between the less exposed Follow The Tracks and Exemplary. Paul and I split the bet and we both get 4/1 just before they both go 7/2. Paul in particular has shown an uncanny knack for getting the markets right and going in at just the right time. Follow The Tracks leads but fades to 3rd. Exemplary is cruising behind Xaarcet, but somehow Xaarcet just holds on. We read the race almost perfectly, except for the winning bit. My record for photo finishes on this journey is now 0 from 5.
The sixth race is the swansong of the dear old Morestead. This fine animal is having his 50th outing at Fontwell before a well earned retirement. It’s the AP McCoy factor though – everyone is jumping on the sentimental bandwagon, and at 6/1 he makes no appeal. He sets off like a scalded cat, keen to secure his last moment of glory in the Sussex sun, but by halfway the writing is on the wall and he fades to finish 5th. He shuffles off the stage unnoticed, but perhaps he doesn’t care.
After I make a few random and frankly silly salutations of “Thanks very much!” on the way out, I challenge Paul to do 5 of his own (excluding train staff) on the way home. He takes to his task superbly, rattling them off in sublime fashion and culminating with asking a bunch of guys just outside the station, with a clock literally yards away, what the time is. “Thanks very much!” he says triumphantly.
The 17:16 from Barnham has been cancelled because somebody has shat (that’s not a misspelling) on the seats. Paul, who has been doing rather well up until now, decides to phone home and chooses this moment to slur his words terribly, just as his mobile runs out of juice and panic is spread about the home counties concerning his whereabouts. Predictably, he then falls asleep on the four minute connecting train home and spends an hour rectifying his apnoeic lapse. Somehow, I feel Bill would be proud. Perhaps not of the erratic journey home, but of the truly extraordinary person his son continues to be.