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Alastair Down: Willie Wumpkins put my guests right in the box seat

Willie Wumpkins in action at Cheltenham
1 of 1

First published on Thursday, February 10, 2011


Few people are fortunate enough to have a private box at the Cheltenham Festival in their early 20s – fewer still manage to enjoy such a luxury when unemployed and on £12.74 a week.

But back in 1979 I was in no hurry to get anything as inconvenient as a proper job – a state of affairs that some insist remains true to this day.

Instead, I used to work all hours on farms in the summer to fund a sustained jumps blitz through the winter, helped by a weekly top-up of just under 13 quid from Her Majesty's government, whose employment office in deepest Kent had been unable to find me work as a poet, deep sea diver or astronaut, which were the sort of things you put on the "desired job" forms in the certain knowledge they would not be able to accommodate you.

Many good things come to those who deserve them least and six weeks before the 1979 festival a family friend rang and said he felt too old to face the hurly-burly of the big meeting and he wondered whether I would like his box for a day.

The box was not down at the nobby royal end – where you can get one only if your forebears came over with William The Conqueror – but was about five yards past the winning line in a stand long gone. It was the first box in the building and its balcony an unsurpassed vantage point.

Various forms came through the post outlining options for food for the anticipated 12 guests that the box would hold. They went straight in the bin because we didn't want any of that food nonsense and I'd asked 30 people already.

Nor was drink ordered as a bottle of gin cost the same as a small family car and everyone had been told that admission to the shindig was by a half bottle of spirits cunningly concealed about their person and that I would supply mixers and a few bottles of wine to keep the girls happy(ish).

Come the day, the two grey-haired ladies from 1970s Racecourse Catering Central Casting, named Ivy, Daphne or Queenie, were surprised to find they had no lunch to serve and that their normally civilised box was staging a remake of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

But by the end of the afternoon they had more money pinned on them than a bride at a mafia wedding and had turned down endless offers of marriage from a crowd about a third of their age and a far smaller fraction of their common sense.

Disregarding unimportant races like the Champion Chase, the punting nub of the afternoon was the third race – the Coral Golden Hurdle Final, then the holy grail of fiendish plots with virtually none of the runners having run on their merits for at least the previous six outings.

But for once in my life I fancied the favourite and informed the assembled sardines that Little Owl was a shoo-in and that they should bet like kicking donkeys accordingly.

At this point a hitherto welcome interloper, a friend of a great friend, piped up that he had been riding out a thing called Willie Wumpkins which had been primed for the race for longer than it takes to raise a family of four, had the ground he needed, was thrown in and in the form of his life.

Drawing myself up to my full width I informed this deluded nincompoop that it was six years since Willie Wumpkins had won as a novice at the festival, that he was old enough to vote and would carry more overweight than I did for the services of his amateur pilot Jim Wilson. I may also have added that when in the presence of a genius (me) he might do well to keep quiet and spare my friends ludicrous losers in future.

After Willie Wumpkins had thrashed Little Owl at 25-1 my Toad of Toad Hall demeanour took a slight knock, but many folk rightly ignored me and lumped on the great animal as I was to do for the next two years when that god of a horse repeated the feat at the age of 12 and 13.

Most people seemed to back either Arctic Ale (20-1) in the four-miler or the ageless Casbah (5-1) in the last and by dusk all was merry bedlam.

Among the guests was a huge character in more ways than one, who always introduced himself "The VI" or "The Vast Indian". Standing well over 6ft and possessed of a tremendous girth, he was of Samoan extraction, but found it easier to trade as the VI than his born name of Na'ama Seilala Muagututia or similar.

Late in the day I spotted him standing on the balcony smoking what can only be described as a colossal, exotic cheroot from which great clouds of intoxicating smoke, strong enough to fell a mule, were engulfing the occupants of the neighbouring balcony, including an increasingly mellow-looking trainer still relatively fresh from his famous Mackeson-Hennessy-King George treble. I left the VI to it, but have never quite been able to look Peter Cundell in the eye to this day.

Eventually the party broke up and later reports revealed that four survivors, including the central behind-the-scenes genius who was to help bring the Olympics to London, awoke in the early hours next morning in a cold dark carriage in a railway sidings somewhere outside Paddington. They must have had a great day. They were not alone.


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Everyone was told that admission to the shindig was by a concealed half a bottle of spirits
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