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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Unique Day in the Far West Country

Cheltenham is a wonderful place.  I have visited the picturesque Gloucestershire town for a Leyton Orient away match, a night of readings from wartime novel Catch-22 by its author Joseph Heller (easily confused with Ibiza-anthem producer, Pete Heller, he of Big Love­ fame) and I have attended the springtime festival of National Hunt Racing. 
Those three events have all given me some pleasure, but there is no doubt in my mind: a day spent at a race meet within the comforting embrace of Cleeve Hill offers gratification in such huge abundance that it far surpasses the enjoyment derived from standing on the terraces at Whaddon Road watching Orient lose or slumping in the seats of the town hall hearing a writer muse.
When I visited Cheltenham for the Open Meeting a few weeks ago, however, I did not know quite what to expect.   It was, you see, on the one hand a slightly less frantic affair than the March mania of the festival and yet, on the other, an assault on the senses previously unfelt by this blogger.  For on this day, I was a guest of my good friend Tim, a bone fide owner of a racehorse; a racehorse syndicated by the Axom Partnership, currently residing in the Somerset village of Ditcheat, under the tutelage of champion trainer Paul F Nicholls.    The horse in question is a juvenile hurdler by the name of Far West and although Tim’s share of the 3 year old gelding may not be massive, his passion and love for the creature is contagious.  

I was immediately infected by the bug of equine ownership.  Soon after passing through the turnstiles, we were permitted entry to the pre-parade ring.  Here you could see the hoofed participants go from a docile stroll, guided by their stable lads and lasses in front of the convened racing enthusiasts, to a foaming-at-the-mouth warrior, primed and ready for battle.  Right on cue, Nicholls, along with his nearest and dearest Team Ditcheat partners, popped up and gave us a few of his thoughts on the race ahead.  This picture (right) shows your follically-bereft correspondant deep in conversation with trainer & (part) owner.  Exuding enthusiasm, with controlled confidence and calculated competitiveness in equal measure, PFN took us through the card and gave a level of insight that was a privilege to ponder as we strolled with him and Georgie towards the parade ring and the awaiting throng of passionate punters. 
Cornelius Lysaght appeared in the corner of one eye, Alan Lee in the other, and cutting through towards us came Ruby Walsh, who exchanged pleasantries with the syndicate members, banter with those more closely acquainted to the Irish National Hunt Champion Jockey and race tactics with his English stable boss.  This was it: race time.

We took our place in one of the O&T bars, and watched the Triumph Hurdle Trial unfold with Far West given a convincing winning ride by Ruby:
As the Cheltenham website states: “Nothing matches the experience of having a runner, maybe even a winner, at Cheltenham”. The sentence is, as far as I’m concerned, unfinished, and should really be concluded: “...even if you’re just freeloading off the back of one of your mates.”

Ruby Walsh with Far West

The Winners’ Enclosure routine of trophy collection, champagne-accompanied DVD race review and obligatory pat of the triumphant horse, who was soaked with effort-induced perspiration and jettisoning long puffs of steamy breath into the fresh lunchtime air, seemed pretty familiar to the Axom crew.  Far West had won the month before at Chepstow, and went on to win again last weekend in another JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial at Cheltenham.   They say bloodstock agent Anthony Bromley never misses an opportunity to ever-so-smugly make his presence felt after one of his finds crosses the winning post first, and it’s fair to say he has been ubiquitous in following Far West towards the trophies in the last two Cheltenham outings, particularly since he tipped the horse up as one of his Bromley's Best Buys in Mark Howards‘s excellent almanac of national hunt racing One Jump Ahead.

Miller's Money-Spinner

Watching the various bookmakers’ representatives putting in their prices for the Festival Race was pretty interesting too.  Some made Far West a 14/1 shout, Kate Miller from William Hill was more confident about his chances of taking the Triumph Hurdle proper.  “I think we’ve just seen the winner” was the confident statement she made, handing in a quote of 8/1.  I think I'll trust Kate's judgement, since she provided me with a winning tip at a similar price for later in the day - a Pipe / Scudamore horse called Goulanes, who beat 4/1f Lovcen, Alan King's popular German horse, by over seven lengths into fifth place.
I'm sincerely hoping that the success enjoyed by Far West, Tim and the rest of the Axom Syndicate will convince Mrs Palphabet that a small stake in a racehorse is an excellent toe-in-the-water method of broadening my knowledge of, increasing my passion for and multiplying my insight into the sport, without fully burdening the household with the risks associated with an outright foray into thoroughbred acquisition.  Surely that has to be better for our future than a deposit on a house or next year's belated honeymoon!  Until then, however, I will gladly take as many opportunities as I can to hang off the coat tails of others, shamelessly approaching anyone associated with the turf for even the smallest nugget of information in that perennial quest for equine enlightenment.
Current prices for the JCB Triumph Hurdle race can be found here, with Hills now into 6/1 against Far West and Ladbrokes a standout 10/1.

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