Clive has guaranteed me that he shall arrive with Paul before 3pm. He is right; he pulls up on the driveway at 2:57. Then the taxi arrives and we are all set. It looks like it will be mission accomplished unless the M40 is shocking. We pick Andrew up en route, who says that the M40 is shocking, but the cabbie maintains that his satnav is showing only minor delays.
I have found a Mercedes Viano to take us to Stratford. I wanted a table so we could all enjoy a game of poker, but it soon becomes clear that the driver’s aggressive approach to his trade, along with the virtually frictionless small table, will make this a challenge. But I’m up for a challenge, and we persevere under trying conditions. If you’ve seen the sketch of Tommy Cooper trying to perform magic on the set of a ship in a storm you’ll have some idea of the difficulties we faced.
Clive, who is feeling carsick after only a few minutes under the guidance of Ayrton Senna, assumes the role of lookout, shouting “Braking!” and “Roundabout!” at appropriate moments so that we can adopt the brace position and attempt to hang onto everything. Even with this early warning system, chips and cards frequently slew onto the floor. This seems to put Clive off his game and I manage to pull off an audacious bluff, which I remind him of frequently throughout the evening.
In between hands, talk weaves between the usual banter and obscure minutiae of life. We agree that the old BBC computer classic Elite was a triumph; there was something achingly hopeful about seeing tiny, bright pixels in the vastness of black and not knowing what it would be. Paul explains that he couldn’t afford a self-centering joystick and that he had to concoct his own solution with rubber bands. I had no idea that my dear friend had experienced such a deprived upbringing. Andrew challenges me to list all the courses in order. No problem, I say, and rattle off Cheltenham, Uttoxeter, Not Ffos Las,……um……Taunton, Exeter…….no, it’s gone.
The inevitable traffic jam on the M40 that everyone had predicted other than Ayrton’s satnav at least offers some respite from the high g-force lurching and rolling. It does, however, mean that yet again I miss the first race. It’s somehow become a regular feature of my venture, but tonight it’s a shame because before racing I was due to make my debut on the racecourse tannoy to promote and celebrate the finish of my tour.
We meet Jason and Simon at the course and our merry band swells to six. Somebody suggests Weather Babe in the second, I’m not sure why now, but momentum builds and soon we have all put the mortgage on this mare at 6/1 in a five runner affair. Turning for home she looks all over the winner, but falters coming to the last and finishes a tired second. After the third race it is clear that it is not a day for favourites. They have watered the course earlier in the week and it has been hosing it down most of the day, so the conditions on the course seem almost as testing as in the taxi. So I start backing big outsiders. Big outsiders do indeed win the remainder of the races, although not the ones I’ve chosen.
We head for the carvery as Andrew and Simon are, strangely, cycling around The Isle of Wight this weekend and need to prepare by Roast-Beef-loading before their exertions begin. The food is okay, but the better part is that we sit around a big table and chat. Stories from the last three months are wheeled out, and I know that some will become the fable of future banter. Ivan joins us and we are now a magnificent seven, comrades in the continuing war against the bookies. We shall win the battle tonight, but the fight is ongoing, and it is one that I shall soon take leave of absence from for a few months. I am sure I shall look back on this absurd period with such great fondness, but for the moment I am enormously happy that this shall be my last racecourse for a while.
Late in the evening there is an outbreak of winning in the gang, although I manage to avoid most of the contagion. Some of us back Catch Tammy at 80/1 each way who soldiers on for third. Then the whole bunch, except me, have backed Iguacu at 10/1 in the last under Ivan’s assertion that Richard Johnson would not have come here for just one ride if it wasn’t worth his while. But I went to Hamilton for just one race two days ago and that didn’t result in a winner, so I break from the crowd.
I don’t need to tell you the result, but I should tell you that it was a roaringly tight finish and Paul, Jason, Andrew, Ivan, Clive and Simon were all dancing around the steps in joy, and I couldn’t stop myself from joining in. The racecourse after a rousing and winning finale is a wonderful place to be.
Today, Tammy has selected Simon to be her on-course representative and texts through her raft of selections, which of course Simon completely forgets about until the end of the evening. His face as he reads them out and we confirm that, of course, most of them were winners was priceless. His voice is a barely audible whimper as he gets to the end of the list and realises the extent of the lapse. Unsurprisingly, Tammy has also caught on to Catch Tammy with a generous £8 each way.
Suddenly it is all over. I say goodbye to Jason and Ivan, and we head back to Ayrton in the Viano. I had expected this to be an emotional moment for me, but if anything I feel slightly numb. I have just completed my ludicrous challenge, something I have dreamt of for more than 20 years, but it hasn’t sunk in yet. I wonder when, if at all, it will all catch up with me. The answer is obvious: when I get home.