Given a free Friday afternoon most people would propose a long weekend in Paris or perhaps an afternoon tea at an elegantly over-priced London hotel, while the sane amongst us would stay in bed and watch endless re-runs of Casablanca.
I, as I think may have been established, often prefer to take life at a different beat. My empty Friday was inevitably spent at a racecourse, and keeping to my tradition of visiting a new one each year I trained my trusty compass on Fontwell Park.
Depending on who one talks to, Fontwell stands above Brighton as Sussex’s pre-eminent racetrack. However, my regional expert, Mr Partridge, has only offered measured assessments of both; so much so that he may be the victim of splinters in his currant coloured corduroys.
Nevertheless, with Fontwell open like goal only an English soccer play could miss, I decided to venture into the unknown. The card – which Mr Partridge assured me would be littered with Gary Moore hotpots – was novicey and contained not a single Moore-trained horse.
Two days before the meeting I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing the great trainer Nicky Henderson, who informed me that the ground across Britain was too hard – particularly at Fontwell – and he was pulling out all of his horses. Henderson was a man of his word and many other trainers, feeling this was a splendid idea, followed suite.
The result was a rather threadbare card.
As Friday dawned so did the inevitable Southern rail strike and my much maligned father, who I had finagled into coming, now assumed the wheel. The rain, which had perhaps been brought on by a Henderson rain dance, arrived with such enthusiasm that I kept looking outside for animals going past two-by-two.
My father drove like a demonic curly haired Lewis Hamilton, racked with fear over a day without his old crutch: a hip flask of whisky. However, if there is one thing the old bean loves more than the Scottish stuff it is horses and he got us to the beautiful little track with a minute to spare before the first.
Ah, the first, that ever important race to the punter. Failure here will lead to the racegoer chasing his tail like a dog obsessed with circles.
Now, at this stage I should point out that I have a dear friend called Bob Dawson and between 2011 and 2013 a horse called Bob’s Worth reigned supreme at Cheltenham. I thought this was not a coincidence but a gesture of generous fate. Ever since then I have proceeded to bet on any horse with Bob in its name.
I, of course, spied Run Bob Run in the Racing Post and, even though no horse with a Bob in it has come within a furlong of the winning post since Bob’s Worth’s Gold Cup, I put ten of my finest English pounds on this animal. The bucolic scene was sadly not lit up by this old Bob. He was, like the weather, a bit of a drip.
Fontwell – particularly when compared with my previous weekend’s jaunt to Ascot – resembled a second division soccer stand.
And, I for one absolutely loved it. It has a boundless charm, the ruddy horse racing men countless and the bars plentiful. Furthermore, part of the ticket deal for the day included a pint, a free bet and lunch.
I put my free bet on a 50-1 outsider, sunk my pint and ate my pie (yes I know not fish on a Friday, what would He say!). Rather quickly I was left with nothing but the shirt on my back. I continued to chase the rainbow and invested in a little triple, which consisted of three heavily odds-on favourites that surely couldn’t lose. Ably assisted by my hip flask, I settled in under the leaking awning and my suede boots squelched with every proud step.
Well the first two obliged at a canter. At this point I should point out the unique shape of the Sussex track: the hurdle course is an oval circuit but the chase course is a sort-of figure of eight design. The short length of both occasionally left the rain sodden viewer confused as to where we were in the race. I wondered whether they ought to get a bell in to announce the last lap as in athletics and cycling.
Back to the important matter in hand, the racing. The third leg was hosing up the quirky cambered straight. No Hassle Hoff, under the able hands of leading conditional jockey Bridget Andrews, was smoking a cigar as he approaching the last while its only rival was approaching the penultimate hurdle over a furlong back. Andrews looked back and then looked cautiously at the last. She whispered seductively – perhaps too seductively – in the big horse’s ear, who proceeded to cartwheel through the final hurdle.
However, despair I did not. A quick curse to the racing Gods was followed by laughter and appreciation of a marvelous day at a beautiful twee course. The final race, well, of course, I lost by a short nose.
As I was driven back to London my grin could not retreat. I looked at the endless cats eyes and counted them until I slumped into a well deserved doze. However, as the lids of my pink eyes flickered I thought that more folks should remember that while Cheltenham is perfection, there must be slither of our hearts reserved for the Fontwells of this world as that is where the true heart of racing beats so strongly.
Newcastle next year I suppose.