Taunton just had a completely different feel. There was smiling and talking and people helping each other with bags on the train down. When I arrived at the station three disparate groups immediately and easily coalesced to share a taxi to the course, as well as our experiences of the Festival last week.
We were greeted by friendly staff on the gate, and once inside the course the good times continued. There was space, that you could move around in! If you wanted to go to the paddock, you could. If you wanted to get a (quite decent) pint of beer you were served within seconds and called darling. So I found a spot and settled, something that was so noticeably absent from my first two meetings.
I didn’t want to back the Nicholls hotpot in the first at odds on, so found an outsider who ran creditably but lost, predictably, to the Nichols hotpot. I fancied a Pipe debutant in the second race and backed him early at 9/4, fearing his odds could only plunge, and retired triumphantly to the bar. On coming out just before the race was off I was astounded to see that Perspicace had drifted out to 7/2, but my bonhomie was such that instead of seeing this as a possible warning sign, I decided to lump on again at the enhanced price. Tom Scudamore guided the four year old to an easy victory, and I had my first winner of the tour.
I celebrated by browsing the stall, and was surprised to find equine artist Caroline Cook behind the till, busying herself with a commission that she was working on. I told her that my first racing print was one of hers from many years ago – One Man and Barton Bank jumping the last at a Cheltenham January meeting. She concurred “yes, that was going back a while now!”
I couldn’t work out the 3rd race despite its small field size, so phoned my lifelong friend and occasional random number generator for his opinion. Jason initially opted for 6, but on learning it was a 4 horse race changed his mind. He may as well have stuck with 6, as his new selection was almost lapped.
My themed choice in the fifth race, The Road Ahead, ran a very strange race. He was on and off the bridle before finally becoming interested in the final few furlongs and losing in a photo finish. When he unsaddled, jockey Sean Bowen, riding for his father, looked very upset – certainly more upset than I was, and he didn’t have any money on it! This may not be Cheltenham but passions still run high and a win is a win, which this wasn’t, by the narrowest of margins.
I decided to quit whilst I was ahead and shared a taxi back to the station with John from Chesterfield and Mick who was clearly a Geordie. I asked what had brought them all the way down to Taunton for some frankly ordinary racing on a Monday afternoon. John’s eyes lit up.
“This is my last racecourse, I’ve visited them all now!” he said with some satisfaction.
What a coincidence! He was finishing his quest as I was starting mine. His tour had taken a little longer than eighty days, beginning in earnest 3 years ago after taking voluntary redundancy. His pal Mick had decided to join him for this final hurrah.
I quizzed him on his journey. His favourite course was Ludlow, the trickiest was Kelso, “miles from anywhere.” Then I asked him what he felt like now he had finished, and what he would do next. At this point John became less animated. It was almost as though he hadn’t got a plan for what to do next, and was beginning to realise that he needed one.
I wanted to chat further with these instantly likeable guys, have a beer with them and discuss past races and future plans, but the taxi had reached the station and I had a train to catch. Racing is like that though – thousands of strangers flung together by their love for an unusual sport, with thousands of different stories. Our connections are heartfelt and humourous, but so very random and transitory.
John and Mick will not be at Exeter tomorrow. Their race is run. In fact it is probably 500/1 that I see them again, but I now feel that my journey has finally begun in earnest. Real racing folk at proper grassroots courses have brought out the best in me. That, and a winner of course.
As I entered the station a guy noticed my Racing Post and asked if I’d had any luck. One winner, I replied, but that was enough. What about him?
“Oh we had a horse running today” he said, “It came second.” Which race I enquired? “The second race. It ran nicely but got beaten by the new Pipe horse.”
My win had been somebody else’s loss. I said his horse looked a nice prospect, and asked about plans, but like John he also seemed unknowing of the future. Perhaps that is the key to horse racing – enjoy the moment, you never know what the future may hold.