With only two horses good enough for us to even think about entering them for Cheltenham, 2015 looked like another year without the Timpson colours appearing at The Festival.
But we still paid the fee for Royal Palladium and Sixty Something to enter two of the less prestigious races, just in case enough of the better horses pulled out to pursue the bigger races or better prizes on offer elsewhere.
With four weeks to go things didn’t look hopeful, but I still kept counting the number of entries with a higher rating. With a maximum of 24 runners in the Kim Muir Handicap I counted over 30 horses with a higher handicap than Sixty Something with Royal Palladium another 20 places further down the list, no wonder I was pessimistic.
Unexpectedly, a padded envelope arrived in our post a week before The Festival with badges, tickets and all we needed for ourselves and two friends to watch Royal Palladium run in the 4 mile Toby Balding National Hunt Chase on the first day of The Festival. I don’t know how Venetia Williams secured the entry off a handicap of 122 but when I checked my iPad Alex’s horse was listed as one of 24 starters.
Two weeks earlier Alex had clearly stated that if we had an entry she would be watching the race on the television in the comfort of her own home. After five months of chemotherapy Alex felt that walking to the paddock and coping with the crowds would be too exhausting.
When the possibility of an entry turned to reality with the arrival of that envelope Alex changed her mind. She decided to go.
We acquired a wheelchair, which, after two successful test attempts at assembly, I folded neatly and put in the boot of the car. We got to the racecourse just as the first race finished and headed for a table in the Owners and Trainers marquee. This was not the usual owners and trainers scrum that takes place at most courses where owners have to share their privilege with lots of members, members’ friends and others who think they deserve to be there.
This marquee was only for those owners with runners on the day. At last I was able to enjoy the sort of hospitality owners deserve. There were plenty of tables and chairs and the food was so much better than I’ve been offered at any other course I had difficulty believing that this was racecourse catering and that the food was free. At last The Jockey Club has recognised that they won’t have a sport without the owners, who deserve all the pampering possible.
My only problem was the disabled ramp. As a learner wheelchair driver I didn’t see the raised metal fixing at the bottom of the slope. The chair got stuck, so I reversed a couple of yards and had a run at it and I nearly tipped Alex out of the chair. We ignored all the helpful advice of fellow racegoers who suggested I should pull Alex backwards and, while holding up a queue of 20 tweed-clad owners and their friends, Alex got out of the chair, I lifted it over the obstacle, then Alex resumed her seat. By the end of the day, after negotiating several more similar obstacles we perfected this procedure into a pretty slick manoeuvre.
After an excellent lunch, that included crab and smoked salmon, I left Alex in the marquee, watching the racing on television, while I went to survey the disabled access and the wheelchair viewing areas. I did such a thorough job I joined the tote queue too late to bet on the next race (I saved £20 by not backing two greys that finished well down the field).
As a trial run I wheeled Alex about 250 yards so she could watch the next race on a big screen by the paddock. Within a few strides I discovered how difficult it is to push a wheelchair through a throng of racegoers who are so keen on talking on their phone, looking at their Blackberry or chatting to girls with enormous feathers in their hair, they don’t look where they are going and certainly won’t see a wheelchair.
The biggest bugbear are the stoppers and blockers. The stoppers suddenly stop moving to answer a phone call or consult their racecard while the blockers stand in groups of three or four upsetting the pedestrian flow while they continue an irrelevant conversation that started over three pints of Guinness.
The crowd took so little notice of Alex in the wheelchair I started muttering to myself, “will they ever move!” “Hello! We’re here!” “This is a nightmare”.
As we watched the race a couple of absent-minded men with check suits and bright ties didn’t realise that they were blocking Alex’s view of the big screen so we had to keep changing position.
I decided that for the big race, the Champion Hurdle, Alex would see the action from the wheelchair viewing area. It was a bold move. I had to push the wheelchair uphill. I thought everyone was going to totally ignore this 71 year old man, sweat pouring down his face, struggling up a gradient that felt like 45 degrees. Half way up the hill it suddenly got easier and I picked up speed. Just near the top I realised that a kind punter had taken pity on me and was doing most of the pushing.
The wheelchair area gave Alex a great view of the Willie Mullins-trained favourite Faugheen fly past us up the finishing hill to win for jockey Ruby Walsh. I now had to get Alex back to the marquee for tea.
Guiding a wheelchair downhill brings a different set of challenges, especially at Cheltenham on a slope that veers to the right. It all happens so much quicker than the uphill trip. There seemed to be just as many people to whom the chair is invisible, but the biggest problem was the stoppers and blockers. To avoid one group of celebrating Irishmen I steered to the right and, almost too late realised that the camber was causing the chair to tilt and Alex looked likely to take a tumble. It was then that I realised why the chair is fitted with a safety belt.
Safely back in the upmarket owners and trainers marquee for tea, scones and eclairs, I placed a losing bet on the next race before going to the pre-parade ring to meet Venetia Williams and her team. Alex kept well clear in case the wheelchair scared the horses as much as it was scaring me, but it didn’t stop her entering the parade ring with two fellow owners helping me to push the chair across the grass.
It was an amateurs race with most horses ridden by jockeys who were unknown to both trainer and horse. Our rider Mr T Hamilton looked about 12 years old but assured us he is 19. He had been around enough to make the right jockey type comments – “I’ll get him handy, pop over a few and see how we go”.
There was no way we were going to get the wheelchair across the paddock, up the hill and to the viewing area in time for the start, so we stayed in the middle of the paddock and watched the race on the big screen, which showed that Royal Palladium was bottom of the betting at 100/1.
At least our jockey was handy enough in the first mile to be mentioned by the course commentator, but he dropped towards the back halfway through the race, with 2 miles still to go. For the last mile the big screen wasn’t big enough to show the stragglers and Royal Palladium didn’t get another mention. We saw eight horses go past the winning post then the camera cut away to picture the joy of the winning jockey.
Five minutes after the race we discovered that Royal Palladium finished the course in 13th place but was not accompanied by the jockey who was unseated at the last fence.
With no horse to pat back and no jockey to tell us how much better we would have done on softer ground, I pushed Alex and the wheelchair to the exit for the long drive back to Cheshire.
The following day we were faced with an important decision. Despite my pessimistic calculations Sixty Something would make the cut to compete in the Kim Muir chase on Festival Thursday. We had to decide whether to run in The Kim Muir or go for the more valuable and probably more competitive Midlands Grand National on Saturday.
As usual, we bravely made our usual decision by telling Paul Webber “It’s up to you Paul, adding that Alex won’t be going back to Cheltenham but could get to Uttoxeter”. I wondered how easy it would be to push the wheelchair through the gravel in Uttoxeter’s car park. Paul was decisive “We should go for the Kim Muir” so having waited for years to get a runner at Cheltenham we have two in a week.
I scrubbed my plans to visit our shops on Humberside and substituted a route that took in Redditch, Bromsgrove, Worcester, Evesham and Tewkesbury. I was anticipating parking problems, our entry was secured so late in the date Cheltenham didn’t have time to send the usual badges and tickets, I simply had an email to show to the parking attendant. I needn’t have bothered, there no one was supervising the car parking, we must have hit their lunch hour.
I got into the racecourse at 2.00pm, just in time to lose £20 on the two slowest horses in the second race.
Following my experience on Tuesday, I had avoided the temptation of a Greggs sausage roll in Evesham and kept my appetite for a second bite of the owners’ and trainers’ buffet. More crab and smoked salmon washed down with a pint of Guinness.
While waiting for the Kim Muir at 4.40pm I lost a lot less money than Tuesday. I didn’t pick a winner but three minor places meant I will not have to return to a cash machine to fund the weekend.
It was so easy to move around compared with Tuesday, without the wheelchair people were less irritating but I was more conscious of being courteous to wheelchair users.
The Kim Muir is another amateur riders race and yet again our jockey Mr JPMcKeown had yet to meet our horse, although our regular jockey, Jack Greenall had given him a briefing on the telephone.
If everyone in the paddock before that race was an owner or trainer they must have been part of some enormous syndicates, by the time we arrived there was hardly any space for us to form the pre-race huddle, I would have been really struggling with a wheelchair.
Sixty Something’s odds weren’t shown on the big screen (we were included in the group of also rans labelled 25/1 bar) my hopes were raised when our jockey appeared and filled me full of confidence. He, inevitably, talked about being handy at the start but stressed the importance of being positive. I hoped that Sixty Something, for the first time running with blinkers would approach the race with the same strength of mind and singleness of purpose, but it was difficult to tell what the horse was thinking as he walked round and round the paddock. Perhaps he was trying to work out what these blinkers were all about.
It must be a tense type of torture for the trainer to watch the race standing next to an owner who is only happy if the horse is at the front of the field. Conversation tends to be brief and awkward questions avoided by the trainer looking through his binoculars. On this occasion we were extremely quiet.
Sixty Something was more than handy, he was in the first three when the field passed the Grandstand for the first time and a circuit later he was lying second. There were a couple of worrying jumps that caused Paul to raise his binoculars but with four fences to go our horse took a four length lead and was going away from the field.
I said nothing, but thought a lot we were in the lead at the Cheltenham Festival looking better with every stride and heading for the final bend. It was a magic moment, I thought about Alex watching at home and Paul standing beside me, both of whom were due for a big slice of good fortune. Alex got enormous pleasure from having two of her horses running at The Festival, we had a leg in Pressgang that came second in the bumper six years ago but to have a winner in the Alex Timpson colours would be fantastic. I felt a similar tension to the times Manchester City is one goal up with five minutes to go. I was willing the finishing post to come as quickly as possible. There could only be about 30 seconds between now and Alex’s dream of a Cheltenham Festival winner.
Sixty Something looked amazing, going away from the field with every stride approaching the next fence. He flew into the jump and fell on landing, there was a groan from the small part of the crowd that had backed a 25/1 outsider then the race carried on. But our day came to a full stop and it looked like getting worse.
“I can’t see them” said Paul, raising his binoculars with serious concern. “And” he continued “they are putting the screens up, I fear the worst, John.” I can’t think of a time when my emotions changed so quickly.
The race had finished and the racegoers had already forgotten the horse that fell when racing for home. They knew the result of the race but we didn’t.
Paul set off in search of both horse and jockey, but found neither. Sixty Something suddenly appeared in front of the grandstand walking fairly normally but with his hind legs covered in blood. The vets loaded him into a horse ambulance just as our jockey reappeared a bit shaken and with the prospect of a splitting headache the following morning. “He went fantastic,” he said, “I hardly moved and there was still a load left in the tank.”
I had some veterinary bulletins from Paul during the drive home – nothing broken but Sixty Something is extremely sore.
When I got home I watched the replay on Racing UK. Perhaps I was hoping that I had been dreaming and we had won the race after all. But Racing UK saw what I saw, Sixty Something was well in the lead going away from the field when he fell three from home.
Perhaps Alex will get her first Festival winner next year.
John Timpson CBE is the Chairman of Timpson Ltd, his family business and one of the most well-known names on the high street. Originally a chain of shoe shops, the business, under the management of John, now specialises in shoe repairs and key cutting.
His wife Alex is the owner of several racehorses and John writes about their experiences for Eclipse Magazine each month.