Two years ago today I was in Ripon, visiting my 48th racecourse in 66 days. It seems like a long time ago now. I suppose two years is a long time, really. In both a celebration of the absurd frivolity of my attempt to watch racing at all the British courses in an eighty day period, as well as a vain attempt to flog some more books, I now reproduce below an abridged version of that chapter from the achingly heartfelt chronicle of my mid-life crisis “Around The Races In Eighty Days”.
Astonishingly, this “must read not just for racing fans but for lovers of journeys, both physical and emotional” (Amazon review) can now be purchased at half price from my website. That is £10 for a (first edition) hardback or £5 for the paperback, plus £3.95 postage and packing – the perfect accompaniment for those sun-strewn foreign beaches or, more likely, those soggy Sunday afternoons of British summertime.
Barry held court over the assembled guests sprinkled around the dining room for breakfast. His clearing of the plates turned into an elucidation on Europe, via some strange balloons in the Second World War and his time on the town council. It was a bit like when I used to sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table – if I drifted off for just a few minutes suddenly it had changed from Marjorie marrying the wrong chap to who had given her the sherry glasses and I’d be unable to piece the segue back together.
In the taxi to Ripon, Simon began what proved to be a series of lengthy phone calls to national rail enquiries in a brave attempt to book a ticket to take him home after racing. The lady in India asked him to jump through an extraordinary array of hoops before apparently securing his prize. Simon was so exasperated by the whole fiasco that he developed TCB, also known as Temporary Cathedral Blindness, and asked the cabbie if Ripon had a cathedral as we swept past an enormous old building with an abundance of stained-glass windows and pointy bits.
When we arrived at the hotel Simon was so impressed by the lodgings that he decided he would change his train booking until the next morning. It was comforting that, despite my sparkling company not being enough to keep the man in Yorkshire another day, my choice of accommodation was. Simon sat on the bed, which immediately collapsed, as did I in giggles. Then the fire alarm went off and we were told that it was only the dust from some work going on in the room next door, and not to panic if it went off again. I wondered how we would know if it was a genuine fire alarm next time, and visions of another Fawlty Towers scene came to mind.
The Old Deanery had a relaxed and friendly vibe, and as we settled in the lounge I felt as though I could spend the whole afternoon in the comfy sofas bantering with my old mate. We ordered some drinks and I flicked through the papers while Simon tried to change his train booking.
“No I booked it on the phone.” (Simon gave his postcode and surname to the representative) “I went through to national rail enquiries and they referred me to Grand Central. The reference? Again? 5K….. hello? 5K7….. yes….. you can’t find any record of it?” (gave postcode and surname again) “What? Say again? You’re now going to give me my postcode?…..(then he was on hold, listening to inane musak and my frequent giggles) “There’s no record of any transaction?…. Why do you want my email address, I didn’t give you my email address…..” (postcode and surname again) “….uh huh….yes….right….. Why would I give you an incorrect reference number?….. I’ve given it to you twice, but let’s go for it again shall we….. I’ve just told you my name!”
On hold again, he confided in me that it wasn’t going well, and we agreed that it was probably their policy to make it really awkward to cancel so that half the people would eventually give up. They obviously hadn’t reckoned on Simon’s stubborn persistence, though. For some reason we started talking about the Duckworth-Lewis method, the myth-shrouded formulation designed to calculate target scores in rain-affected cricket matches. It had always seemed a fiendishly tricky thing to understand, but I was beginning to think it was slightly easier to comprehend than the national rail booking system. Simon recalled a recent game which was halted, and when it stopped raining the batting side came out to discover that they needed 12 runs to win off the last ball. Then Simon was put through to Virgin, who he had apparently booked with.
“Hello, I’d like to book a ticket, sorry, cancel a ticket. Yes, 5K7…..” (postcode and surname again) “I seem to be speaking to the dark side of the moon. Where are you?….. Booked my tickets with who? First Great Western? So you’ve got my booking but it’s not booked with you? So who do I cancel with? What number? 08457…..” (Simon called said number)….. “No longer in use!”
During the next ‘on hold’ interlude the cricket theme continued as we reminisced about the famous commentator John Arlott, and Simon told the story of him trudging up to the commentary booth at the top of Lords one morning with two heavy cases, which his new colleague assumed were notes and Wisden annuals, only to discover at the top that they contained four bottles of claret, which Arlott opened with the famous line “This should see us through to lunch”.
We were told that the racecourse was a 15 minute walk, or 10 for us guys, as though being tall somehow increased your walking speed by 50%. Half an hour later we reached the track and immediately bumped into Richard again, fresh from his Walking The Courses leg over the Moors. I asked him whether he thought there would come a time when he just didn’t want to go walking again, but he seemed pretty resolute at the moment. Then he dashed off to talk to Jack Berry – ex-trainer, IJF vice patron, and famous wearer of red shirts – when he spotted him in the paddock, and Simon and I dashed off to the bar, underlining the differing approaches to our respective quests.
For reasons I couldn’t really explain I thought it was time for a big one in the sixth race and selected a four-year-old filly called Rozene. She was making her seasonal debut and would be the latest to test my ‘could have improved from three to four’ theory. I managed to secure 9/2 before she was backed into 7/2. She flew out of the stalls and was never headed, awarding me the biggest payout of the trip so far. On the way back to the hotel, Simon and I started singing her name to the tune of the Toto track ‘Rosanna’, which prompted us to YouTube the song and question why the American band used English comedian Bob Carolgees as their lead singer.