Worcester

There are so many stories from today it’s hard to know which one to choose. Indeed, they do not sit in splendid isolation, but intertwine in a variety of knotty ways which may make it difficult to separate them.

You may be aware that there has been a general election, although with all the media circus surrounding my brave attempt to visit all the racecourses in eighty days, it is quite possible you may have missed it. But in the best interests of “never discuss politics in a pub or a horse racing blog” I shall steer clear of trouble – my sport is about bringing diverse people together, not separating them into different colours.

Then on a smaller stage but equally personal level, this morning I visited Oaksey House in Lambourn and was treated to a tour of its facilities, as well as the village itself, by John Porter who, along with his wife Jackie, has run this immaculate Injured Jockeys Fund centre since it opened in 2009. I was also fortunate to meet in person the IJF Chief Executive Lisa Hancock who had been extremely generous with her time in an interview before I even began my absurd journey. I could attempt to weave the narrative of a wonderful hour and a half spent in and around the West Berkshire ‘Valley Of The Racehorse’ into the report of this crowded day, but feel it deserves its own moment in the spotlight to let this wonderful place shine properly.

I could tell you about a lovely evening meal in a great pub with a dear family and the fantastic debate that followed. But today has to be about the racing, and in truth this piece wrote itself 17 years ago before I knew that wonderful family, before Oaksey House existed, and when thoughts of this ludicrous venture were just a glint in my eye.

I meet Ivan in the Wetherspoons near Worcester Foregate station to enjoy a decent and unusual pint before heading to the racecourse. He starts off into one about the election so I try to distract him with the Racing Post. Ivan mutters something about “oh but I’m not going to talk about politics and all that” which is code for “I will be wittering on again about this exact same subject at various points throughout the afternoon”.

We meet another old teaching acquaintance at the course who is also called Ivan, which could get confusing for you, so I shall call him Ivan H whereas the Ivan you already sort of know shall remain simply Ivan. Glad we’ve got that cleared up. I taught and ran the chess club with Ivan H at a school in Cheltenham for several years before random quirks of fate took us in different directions, but he is another fine friend that has been re-found on this journey.

Two Ivans and I visit Worcester - the scene of a crime some 17 years ago

Two Ivans and I visit Worcester – the scene of a crime some 17 years ago

We ponder the combinatorial problem of the odds of two Ivans appearing in a group of three, but these were always devilishly tricky questions that were soon dropped from most maths syllabuses, so we talk about the horses instead. Ivan selects the first two winners as we catch up and get to know each other. We mention to Ivan H that there is quite a story to be told about the extraordinary happenings on this course almost two decades ago, but it is one that cannot be rushed and needs to wait for the correct moment to give it due ceremony.

We go for a drink, at which point Ivan demands that he wants his Guinness in a non-Guinness glass because he doesn’t like the shape. At times it feels like I’m managing a more mobile and less deaf version of my father, where it’s mostly just easier to placate his foibles than confront them. The barman goes along with this theory too and pours the pint in a John Smiths glass, which Ivan claims makes the black stuff taste like nectar. We assemble near the finishing post to watch the fourth race and it seems like it’s time for The Story.

Once upon a time, when I was training to be a teacher I was assigned to a school in South Gloucestershire. I was given a mentor, an experienced teacher with a reputation for taming even the most unruly of classes. As a wide-eyed innocent, searching for my persona in the classroom, I admired Ivan for his no-nonsense style and fearsome approach. It wasn’t until I realised he was a horse racing fan that my admiration turned to friendship.

Ivan also wrote the timetable, which more often than not resulted in some time off on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday afternoons (remember, the Cheltenaham Festival was only 3 days back then). So it was in the March of 1998 that I was instructed I would be having an extra class that Tuesday afternoon – Ivan’s Year 8s. Whilst I tried (and failed) to stop them throwing Pritt Sticks at each other, he watched my beloved One Man win the Queen Mother Champion Chase. And in all honesty, I didn’t begrudge him one bit. I smiled as he later recalled the scenes after the grey horse’s momentous victory, the cheers ringing in Ivan’s ears as he watched from the overpass as the new champion returned to the stable block.

And so we forged a strong bond through the joyous highs of Festival justice and the savage lows of Aintree despair, as well as through the extreme privilege that is teaching. He was the perfect mentor for me, despite me not realising for another six years that I couldn’t be him in the classroom. I had to be myself, because at some point the mask will slip and there will be nowhere left for you to go. But that’s another story.

Anyway, in the long summer of 98, in the gap between me finishing my training and starting my career, we toured the tracks of the region. He wanted to become a professional gambler, a period Ivan now refers to as something like his mid-life crisis, but over those months he won a substantial sum and came pretty damn close to finally giving up the day job.

He was on a good run, and went to Worcester with me one sunny afternoon to back an old chaser called Zaitoon, trained by the late and mostly-great David Nicholson. I think the money we both had on this grand old chaser differed by a multiple of at least 500, I kid you not. Somehow it didn’t matter though. The 11/4 favourite jumped fluently under top weight, galloped his rivals into submission, and from a long way out there was only one winner. Coming to the last some 30 lengths clear you have to hold your breath – things happen in jump racing. The brave old stalwart didn’t let us down, jumping the fence cleanly and cantering towards the line.

Ivan and I both started walking down the concrete steps to collect – him to literally start a new life, me to be part of the moment, and us both to celebrate like never before. Suddenly we became aware of a hush in the crowd, and we looked up from our footings on the steps. The horse looked fine approaching the line, the jockey Richard Johnson sat motionless. But people in the crowd are pointing back down the track, to where somebody standing just after the last fence is holding something up in the air, like a small rug or perhaps some sort of bag.

Zaitoon ‘won’ the race but was disqualified because his weightcloth slipped off just after the last fence, within sight of the post. Nicholson took full responsibility for the incident. I suggested that Ivan should send the betting ticket to him to see if The Duke wished to be held financially responsible as well. We saw out the evening in Worcester as best we could in the circumstances – getting blind drunk and lamenting what could, what should, have been. They somehow let us in to a snooker club and I’ve no idea how that cloth survived unscathed.

So Ivan never became a professional gambler, and I realised there was no such thing as a dead cert, even if your horse jumps the last 30 lengths up and cruising. The betting exchanges now record in great and stark detail the regular occurrences of the unimaginable occurring, but they cannot show the whole picture. Behind every massive fluctuation of the in-running odds there are winners and losers, a hidden human cost that cannot be properly quantified in purely monetary terms.

It is interesting that in all my years of punting I have never let my passion become a problem. Whilst my stakes have undoubtedly increased over time, I have never, ever bet more than I could afford to lose. I don’t say this because I feel morally superior to those with a gambling problem – I have enough problems of my own to realise how fallible we all are, but luckily none of them are gambling related.

And I suppose that’s it, really. In the end I may have been incredibly lucky to witness Zaitoon be incredibly unlucky. And although I’ve never admitted it to myself, I may even have something to thank David Nicholson for. I’m not sure Ivan would say the same though.