There I was, in town, my head full of fancies for the last day of the Cheltenham Festival, when I ran into a friend - and his mate, a retired finger-prints expert who used to work for the police. No sooner had we watched our various picks fail in the first race than it was a jerk of the head towards the door and, ‘Fancy a pint, Al?’
Why not, I thought. It’s been a long hard slog this week: racing at Sedgefield Tuesday, Hexham Thursday, a marathon hike around south London in between. So we popped next door to the Shakespeare, a cosy little pub designed for drinking beer and not much else. My kind of boozer - and they sold my favourite brew, Deuchars, the best thing to come out of Scotland since they invented whisky.
We repeated the formula right through to the Gold Cup: into the bookies to watch the race, back to the pub - in their case to spend their winnings, in my case to drown my sorrows. After said Gold Cup, the biggest race of the year, barring the Grand National, I looked at the paper and said, ‘I’ll have one more stab at it, then I’m off home.’ Actually, I should pause here and stop exaggerating. It wasn’t entirely gloom and doom. I did back a winner - Alderwood at 20/1 in the second - but what happened next sort of overshadowed that. The fact is, I was down on the day and down on the week. Most people are: it’s how the racing industry flourishes, and serves up all that marvellous entertainment, the moments of extreme triumph, the wonderful hard-luck stories that all begin with the famous words, ‘I would’ve won a fortune, but….’
So, what did I fancy in the sixth? The lads wanted to know. I put down my pint, picked up the paper and it all went blurry. Twenty-four runners; conditional jockeys - i.e., they’re barely out of short trousers. Then I saw it. Number 5. At A Glance, ridden by Harry Haynes, a lad of no small reputation. ‘There you go,’ I said, jabbing at it with my finger and assuming an air of certainty. ‘There’s your one.’
Back in the bookies we watched the race go off. Packed field, and my man was there in his pale brown jacket, light sleeves, tucked in towards the rear. As the race progressed he eased himself out to a wide position, and as they approached the downhill that leads to the last couple of fences he started to pick them off, one by one. The Cheltenham hill - the rising ground that leads towards the winning post, is legendary. You can have everything - pace, style, jumping ability - but if your horse doesn’t have the necessary stamina, strength, guts to pound up that hill it’s going to get overtaken. At A Glance had a perfect position, wide of the main runners on the near rail. He glided past them, steamed up the run-in and took it by a neck at 20/1. Woo-hoo! Get in!
I turned towards the pay-out window, slid my hand in my pocket, and that’s when the awful realisation hit me. I’d forgotten to back it.
There are a lot of lessons to be taken from that - if you’re one of those people who learns from his mistakes. But then if I were that kind I wouldn’t have been in and out of the pub/bookies all afternoon, would I? I have slept on it, recovered, and am consoling myself with this thought: how else could I get a cracking story like that?
There’s a lot more to tell abut an eventful week, but right now I have to get dressed and dash down the allotment. We have hired a skip for the weekend and are going to heave rubble into it, clearing new ground for….. asparagus, I hope.