Well I promised Ron a write up after my trip to Wincanton on Saturday afternoon so here we are, though I want to spread it out to a bit of a story that includes Wincanton race course and all the staff I ran in to on the day.
As you will have read elsewhere, it was a bit of a last minute journey of two and a half hours or so to see the first runner we have shares in on her return to the track, as Blue Buttons set off for a very competitive looking mares only handicap hurdle over two and three quarter miles. Raining solidly all the way there, I suspected the going may be soft or worse but it appears that the track missed the heaviest of it as they officially raced on good to soft, good in places from race one onwards, but quickly changed that as the rain soaked in to the turf, with soft or even heavy nearer to the truth in my view. Arriving at the entrance I was “caught” looking at the course map and asked if I needed any help or directions (which is far friendlier than most courses I can name), and better still, as an “owner”, I had a voucher for a free meal which I soon turned in to a pork roll (with crackling) – a very decent start to the day if I do say so myself. As you would expect on Badger Day, the Owners and Trainers Bar was heaving so apart from the odd break to warm up, I declined their hospitality and had a tour of the track, which turns out to be a well-hidden delight. Good views, plenty of bars and restaurants, and as mentioned earlier, the most welcoming staff I have met in a long time made for a good start to the day, as did the parade ring that gave everyone the opportunity to get a view of their race fancy. With trainer Harry Fry busy with other connections early doors (and rightly so), we had arranged to meet up at the saddling boxes prior to Blue Buttons reappearance, which gave me a chance to watch a few other races and suss out the lay of the land with my only gripe the distance between the last hurdle and the winning line – you have to walk a long way to watch a horse getting over a jump of any kind (but I made the effort).
The first race saw Harry represented by Assam Black (who was well supported on course), but with an odds on favourite in the shape of Gaitway I decided to leave the wallet tightly closed and keep a watching brief, and what a sensible decision that turned out to be as neither of them managed to win in a four horse race. Urubu D’Irlande scored instead for Paul Nicholls, despite looking beaten by the favourite and hurdling like a pig on occasion, though if they met again I suspect the result would be comfortable reversed, even if I am unclear whether Nicky Henderson’s beaten favourite needed the run, or simply got to the front too soon?
The five-runner handicap chase did see me have a small bet, and with the Tom George yard in such fine form, and some clever money behind Ballyallia Man from 7/2 early to 5/2 by the time the flag was raised, I followed them in. Impressive is a word very much over used by the media (guilty as charged your honour), but he really did hack up without really breaking a sweat and although we should not be expecting too much improvement at the age of nine, this was his first run for seven months and if he reappears quickly under a penalty, he ought to prove very difficult to beat.
Southfield Theatre made it a good day for trainer Paul Nicholls as he made it a double for the handler following the opener, but as he was sent off odds on I was happy to sit back and try and take a few photos with my iPhone, which went surprisingly well. I freely admit I would have lost all the colour form my face had I backed the jolly, as he was being vigorously scrubbed along at the end of the first circuit by Sam Twiston-Davies before eventually letting his class take over for an easy win, but trust me on this one, he won’t be carrying any of my money when he steps up in class, and may well have his own ideas about the game.
Now I freely admit it, as soon as that race was over I dashed over to the saddling boxes and introduced myself firstly to Harry Fry himself (friendly, smiling, amicable, but busy), as well as plenty of other syndicate members who I must say all made me feel very welcome to a man (and woman). After taking a few happy snaps of Blue Buttons we briefly discussed her chances – “this has always been the plan for her first race, she is fit, and we expect a big run “ (or words to that effect), before posing in the Parade Ring (I’m a snob – so sue me lol), with jockey Noel Fehily (seems a nice enough chap and very polite), before rushing out to the Members Stand, where we all stood together pretending very badly to not be that excited as they lined up at the start. No one admitted to being part responsible for the heavy early morning support (she was sent off the 3/1 favourite but touched 11/4 for a while), but we did all have a loyalty bet of varying sizes, and pretty much tried to hold our breath from flag fall to finale. Those who saw the race (or can read) won’t need or want a step by step review, but suffice to say she jumped well in the main, was up in the van throughout, and did precious little wrong, but Nicky Henderson has a really good mare on his hands in Polly Peachum who gave our mare a stone and a half, and beat her with plenty in hand. Noel reported afterwards that she had done nothing wrong and would come on a bit for the race (good news), though what the handicapper makes of this form could be a worry, and I doubt she races off a rating of 126 when next seen.
As for the rest of the day, I expected an anti climax to be honest but no chance at the races as I ran in to (name dropping now), Nicky Henderson, Kim Bailey, Alan King, Paul Nicholls and others throughout the afternoon, as well as confusing some of the media boys by wearing my “Owners” hat for the day, added to the not insignificant matter of the Badger Ales Trophy, which I enjoyed at the time, but which as caused controversy ever since. Won with any amount in hand by The Young Master (Barry Geraghty at his sublime best), my small each way bet on Duke Of Lucca went down the pan (note to self – never listen to racecourse gossip), though at least he did complete (albeit back in eighth), but ahead of the pulled up favourite, though one behind Harry Fry’s Opening Batsman, who I thought ran a big race at the weights. . One last race for me (I was happy to ignore the bumper to get out before the crowd), and with 2012 Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby representing Harry Fry, where else could I throw my cash? Sentimentality can be a costly thing in this game as logic suggested both the weights and two mile trip would be all against him these days, but I backed him nonetheless, and to my amazement so did most other people, as no way should he have been sent off as short as 4/1 on my tissue. Brave as always, he battled on in to third behind shock winner Purple Bay, winning at 16/1, and seems sure to be better suited by two and a half miles these days, though whether Irving would have won had he stood up at the last is a tricky one to call.
In summary though, I loved Wincanton, was impressed by Harry Fry, fell in love with Blue Buttons, and was given a very warm welcome by the other syndicate members –what’s not to like about this racing game?