I arrive more than two hours early for Wincanton, which is virtually unheard of in these time-pressured months. The reason is that I am meeting Richard to walk the course. This is the brave and slightly bonkers chap I met at Plumpton who is visiting all the British racecourses on foot. By that I don’t mean he is walking from the car park to the grandstand and back again – he is literally walking from one to another over a period of 13 months.
He greets me warmly and recounts his journey from Newton Abbot. Walking from South Devon to the eastern tip of Somerset, a journey he describes as breathtakingly pretty, seems like an enormous undertaking to me as someone who can lap Tescos car park for hours to get a space near the entrance, but to Richard doing less than 20 miles in a day is just a stroll in the park nowadays. Not always the case though, as he reveals that before this venture started his wife would say that the furthest he would walk would be to the corner shop to get a Racing Post. He introduces his daughter and campaign manager Minty who has planned the whole thing.
“I talk and walk,” he says modestly, “and she does everything else. She’s the real brains – she’s done all the PR and marketing stuff, all the organisation and liasing with the racecourses.”
I chat to Minty about the nuances of the fixture list and how the race planners, unbelievably, don’t seem to have people like Richard and I in mind when writing their schedule. We swap notes on the logistics of touring the courses and she reveals that she is worried about the winter meetings at Uttoxeter, Sandown and Ludlow. I tell her that Ffos Las went wrong for me on Day 3, but where there is a will there is a way.
As we set off on the lush turf we are suddenly joined by a large group of supporters, most of whom seem to know Richard very well. I feel slightly guilty that I might be gatecrashing a personal party, but he is extremely generous with his time as we lap the chase course (it being marginally shorter than the hurdles) and when he introduces me I get gently teased by everyone for not walking my eighty day tour.
I describe him as bonkers because he surely must be to contemplate a walk of almost 3000 miles, but when we get chatting I find a man who is at once intelligent and warm, eloquent and positive. He fondly remembers going racing with his father on the occasion of his 21st birthday.
“The only definite was that I wanted to start and finish at Newmarket. Part of my birthday present from my father was a day out to the Craven meeting. We started at 5.30 in the morning, drove to Newmarket, went to Warren Hill for first lot, followed by the Rutland Hotel for breakfast, then visited three different yards…..”
The itinerary for the day is rattled off like it was yesterday, and they enjoyed it so much that they repeated the trip every year for the next quarter of a century. He now walks in honour of his father and to raise funds for the charity that fights the miserable disease, pancreatic cancer, that claimed him three years ago.
“I haven’t been back to the Craven meeting since my father died. I have this pipe dream to try to get everybody who walks any part of any leg throughout the entire 13 months to come to Newmarket that day and we will all walk up the July course to the intersection and down the Rowley Mile.” I’m impressed by Richard’s ambition – I’m planning on a carvery at Stratford with the usual suspects to mark the end of my journey.
The other half of his immense fundraising efforts will be directed to Racing Welfare, a charity that looks after the unsung heroes of the industry. The racing community has taken him to their heart and Richard cites their incredible support as the most pleasing aspect of his journey so far. This is in stark contrast to his worst moment which came only yesterday when a Jack Russell bit him and it’s owner told him to bugger off.
Richard says he had a horse with Oliver Sherwood a while back who was “absolutely useless” but they’ve stayed in touch. He informally made Many Clouds his informal project mascot before the Hennessy but the wonderful chaser quickly became an equine ambassador for the charity and they had a special rug made for him. Richard and Minty were invited to the Grand National, where Jonjo and Jackie O’Neill asked if they could walk the course with them (yes, really that way around!). Minty was in tears at top of grandstand even before Many Clouds rounded the home turn, and apparently there was quite a party afterwards.
“There are many, many really good people in racing, but there are none better than Oliver and Tarnya – they’ve had more than their fair share of ups and downs, and they’ve just helped out without being asked. Nobody suggested that they sell cups of tea and pass round the bucket for Walking The Courses when they had Kauto Star up at Rhonehurst, they just did it.”
I ask Richard what happens next, at the end of the thirteen months when the music stops. It’s a question I asked John on Day 4 of my quest in Taunton, and one that I will have to ask myself fairly soon. Does he have any grand designs on a new project?
“No, no, back to the day job,” which has been very understanding by all accounts “I’m not planning on walking the courses in Ireland or France, although if anyone wants to take the brand on, I’d be happy.”
I quickly rule myself out. That’s a conversation I really don’t want to have with The Wife, at least not yet. We go our separate ways, Richard heading off to Salisbury tomorrow and myself to Bath, but our paths may well cross again in Ripon this weekend.
Wincanton’s Sales and Marketing Co-Ordinator Katherine Dalgety is taking photos of the spectacle and we get chatting about my own quest which seems a little banal alongside Richard’s. She asks me how this all came about, and I have to admit that I’m still searching for an answer to the question “Why?”. Perhaps there just isn’t one. Ian Barlow, Chairman of the Racecourse Association comes up and we talk about my tour. He has recently completed his own ‘full house’ and was chuffed with his achievement until a friend pointed out that he hadn’t seen both flat and jump racing at the dual-code courses, but I think that’s getting picky, like saying you haven’t been to Great Leighs if you visit Chelmsford. We enthuse about the wonderful variety our sport offers, and I mention as a prime example Ludlow and how it seems to bring the community together. Ian concurs and says that inclusivity is a big selling point in his discussions with the government.
As if to prove the point, I meet a lovely couple over lunch in the Grazers eaterie and we start chatting whilst attempting unsuccessfully to cut our roast beef with flimsy plastic cutlery. Bob and Margaret are originally from Essex but now spend a lot of time touring with their caravan. There are a bunch of guys causing a bit of a stir in the Premier Enclosure that do not look entirely normal, depending on your definition of normality. It transpires that they are om a stag from Devon, and their off-the-shoulder numbers are merely to make the most of Ladies Day. The paddock commentator leading the Best Turned Out Lady competition recognises that they have certainly made an effort, but they narrowly fail to win the prize. I’m not sure they mind as they seem to be having a whale of a time in the winners’ enclosure entertaining the assembled galleries.
Wincanton is just fantastic. There are a plethora of places to sit, eat, drink and settle. You can get a fresh sandwich or a pint of real ale. The place is tidy and friendly, with a good view of the action. I rack my increasingly feeble brain to find a course I’ve liked more. They are all so different that it’s difficult, and perhaps unfair, to compare them, but this unassuming local track must be near the top of most lists, despite the lack of proper cutlery. Generous facilities, a sunny day with a couple of winners, and the feel-good factor of the Richard bandwagon have undoubtedly combined to make it a great afternoon.