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Alastair Down: Key to happiness for a schoolboy in love with racing

Findon frolics: Capt Ryan Price (left) and stable jockey Josh Gifford, who won four of the first five runnings of what is now the Betfair Hurdle and was then the Schweppes
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First published on Thursday, February 3, 2011


If that carefully cut piece of metal was still in my possession I should want to be buried with it still nestling in my pocket. A small, treasured, bright blue Yale key that in the days of my teenage incarceration at school was my escape route to a place I would rather be - the world of jump racing in general and the Cheltenham Festival in particular.

Nipping off to Lingfield meetings on a Saturday was always easy, but the festival's Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday incarnation presented a far more intractable problem for a 15-year-old meant to be immersed in double chemistry or some equally dubious form of academic torture.

There were a couple of masters who would turn a blind eye to an enthusiast's disappearance to watch the Champion Chase on the BBC, but in the main it came down to deceit and intrigue involving implausible outbreaks of beri-beri or yet another dead grandmother who needed planting.

I could have quite truthfully said my father had run away from home again, which he did every year come festival time although he had the decency to take Mum with him.

But whatever the subterfuge, soon after lunch I would sneak off to take the bus up to the Kentish village of Shipbourne (pronounced Shibbun) and 20 minutes later the green single-decker would deposit me outside the The Chaser with its fabulous sign of a horse clearing the last in full flight. Never has a pub name more beautifully combined the intricacies of drinking with the joys of a deep local sporting tradition.

A mile from The Chaser stood one of the mightiest training establishments in the land and certainly the grandest. A majestic pile over 300 years old, Fairlawne House was the home of Royal trainer Peter Cazalet who rightly felt no need to muddle through on a diet of Brown Windsor and overcooked brisket and employed culinary ground-breaker Albert Roux as his chef for eight years.

Nor is the Roux-racing connection yet broken as Michel Jnr, currently earning good reviews for his BBC2 series, presented the Albert Bartlett Trophy at last year's festival.

The public bar of The Chaser was where the Cazalet stable staff would assemble of an evening over a pint of Shepherd Neame while a green teen would sit and listen in wonder to stories of the ones that had got away and the certainties to come.

But of a festival Tuesday and with time pressing before the first on the box, the joys of a pint pulled by long-serving landlord Reg Bearsby would have to wait.

With the small blue key now warm to the clutch on this cold March afternoon, it was a 400-yard walk down the hill from Shipbourne's vast village green to Dick and Gwenda's small, homely and welcoming white-painted cottage nestling below.

Dick and Gwenda Howe were old family friends and, indeed, Mum and Dad would stay with them for Cheltenham at their former house on the banks of the Severn at Upton close to where the likes of Terry Biddlecombe and Josh Gifford would assemble on the evenings of the big meeting at the nearby Swan.

I can't tell you about Gwenda's academic qualifications other than she had a first in kindness, while Dick, large, gentle and avuncular, had in an earlier life been the most successful of the escape managers at Colditz, those selfless characters who would plan the minutiae of their friends' bids for freedom in the knowledge that it was their lot to stay locked in the German vice.

The blue key would be turned in the lock of the empty house, kettle put on to boil, curtains drawn and then the television switched on and that short wait as the old equipment warmed up and there, in glorious black and white, were horses wheeling round at the start at Cheltenham.

And galloping back at me down the gulf of the years come the half-forgotten names of that other country where they indeed do things differently - the past.

How the devil did Katie Gaze win the 1972 Sun Alliance Hurdle with Even Dawn at 40-1? But it was Mrs Gaze's meeting of miracles as on the final day she took the County Hurdle as well with Cold Day.

These were the novice years of Pendil and of Killiney, owned by my best mate's aunt and therefore almost running in my own colours.

Attivo's monochrome Triumph triumph was played out on that small screen, Tom Jones was in his jumps heyday as a trainer and the world was still enriched by the swashbuckling figure of Ryan Price, three-parts genius to one of pirate.

After racing it was the bus back to my own Colditz, arguably a more benign regime but almost as hard to escape from. I would give anything to hold that small blue key in my hand once more, a reminder of days when hopes streamed high, life was incalculably sweet and the festival imprinted itself on my mind in a manner that no number of millennia will ever shift.


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These were the novice years of Pendil and of Killiney, owned by my best mate's aunt and therefore almost running in my own colours
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