The short trip to drop Paul at the station was strewn with red lights, of which Cheltenham seems to have a staggering array. These are provincial red lights too – no hurry on a sunny Saturday morning for these guys. Paul’s 10 o’clock train was in doubt, a 2/1 shot I would say, as we stop-started our last mile. He then told me it was actually at 10:01 and all of a sudden the chances of making it went odds-on in running. If it were written up in the results section the journey would be described as “started slowly, behind early on, rapid progress from 2 out, stayed on well, won a tad cosily”. No time for long farewells as my Passepar-one flung himself from the moving vehicle in the station car park, but he made the train.
Not going back home with Paul made the challenge seem real for the first time. As I travelled north through the interminable M6 roadworks a road sign offered the alarming news that Newcastle was only 18 miles away. I panicked slightly that the Satnav had cocked up, and that I should go back to reading maps, before realising that it wasn’t the Geordie version.
I passed a horsebox and decided I would back the first runner that afternoon trained by the name on the side, Alexandra Dunn. Sometimes you can over-analyse the form, and I didn’t have a Racing Post yet anyway.
Black Narcissus was a well-backed outsider in the first when I arrived at a busy and cashew-shaped Uttoxeter racecourse for it’s biggest fixture of the year, containing the Midlands Grand National. I’m sure it wasn’t my £5 at 18/1 that had made it’s odds halve by the off, but there must have been some shrewd money out there to invest in the mare who had finished 8th, 7th, 15th and 16th in her four runs this season.
Whoever else was on the bandwagon, we didn’t have long to learn of our fate. Black Narcissus lived up to the suggestion on her horsebox – Dunn Racing. She whipped around at the start and refused to race, standing defiantly for a while before sauntering off in a direction of her choosing. Somehow, it summarised my qualms perfectly – was I, too, done with racing only a day and a half into my eighty day charade?
I had expected somewhere along the line that I would have a “what the hell am I doing?” moment. I hadn’t expected it to be on Day 2, but perhaps it is best to get it out the way early on, before it had time to fester.
The course seemed to suffer from the Cheltenham issue of too many people and not enough space. Queuing was impossible to avoid, unless you had come racing without any intention of betting, watching the race, eating, drinking or going to the loo.
I found a spot by the paddock away from the crowds and nursed a coffee in the bitter breeze. It was the Tommo Show as Derek Thompson, previous stalwart and ever-jolly frontman of Channel 4 Racing held court as assembled interviewees received a gentle and jocular inquisition. At regular intervals a bucket was passed around to receive losing betting tickets with their owners names written on the back. Tommo then selected lucky winners (or should that be losers?) to receive, yes you’ve guessed it, free bets. I was too embarrassed to throw my Black Narcissus chit in.
It was soon clear that it was tough work out on the track, as usual, on the traditionally testing Uttoxeter ground. Many, including most of mine that afternoon, were pulled up. In the second race won by 20/1 outsider Barafundle only three of the nine runners finished the 3 mile Novice Chase.
As AP McCoy came out for the fourth race, flanked by security guards to easy his passage through the adoring galleries, I made a mental note to avoid backing his mounts for the next 6 weeks as they must, given the huge outpouring of public warmth during his extended retirement tour, be atrocious value. Accordingly, Beg To Differ won the handicap hurdle, a heavily backed 11/4 favourite, under a typical McCoy never-say-die ride.
The sun broke through as, strangely, Amazing Grace was sung in the paddock before the big race. As McCoy got the leg up on another well-backed favourite an old man called up to his hero half his age “Good luck Tony,” without acknowledgement, and then “good luck mate!” with a frail thumbs up. Still nothing as McCoy adjusted a stirrup. Both of their luck was out – Catching On fell early.
I raced the sunset back to my overnight stop on Cleeve Hill and experienced my only winner of the trip so far, savouring the last few minutes from The Rising Sun car park before it slipped below the Malverns.