By Tony Stafford
You get those weeks. The previous 14 days brought three winners for my boss: a nice confidence-boost for Lewisham at Kempton; a hard-won novice hurdle win at the same track for Fair Trade and above all a last-to-first York victory for Cousin Khee. All the travel, by car, one trip via Eurotunnel to Chantilly and rail to York went like clockwork. For this week, the clock (and Raymond, my guvnor’s luck) ran down.
It was pretty uneventful until Thursday morning. I got up extra early to swot up on Brian Meehan’s horses (especially Sheikh Hamdan’s tongue-twisters) before setting off at 4 a.m. for the regular drive to Manton work morning. The sausages and bacon were already inserting themselves into my over-active digestion.
I’d got no further than the first traffic lights when I realised I’d left my phone (two numbers one SIM, result of a trip home to Moscow by Mrs S last year) and good job I did. Restored to the full complement, it was back on counting the red traffic lights before Kings Cross (13 is my current record), but I’d only got stopped for the fourth time – Kingsland Road/Richmond Road, Dalston, before the Chinese counter to the early good luck set in. <They say, whatever the front, expect the back, or if you want fried rice, don’t be surprised if they bring boiled>.
Behind an irritating driver who took all day to set off after the interminable wait, I gently pressed on the gas. No gas. Come on, it’s 4.15 and I’m in the middle of a war zone. Within seconds my desperate glance across the road landed on a group of eight young men presumably returning from a club. Lucky I hadn’t listened to the news about Woolwich earlier in the day, or I’d have expired on the spot.
I’m not a member of the AA (don’t drink, really), or anything else, but a call informed me that for an initial £147 I could expect to be seen within an hour and maybe (if he couldn’t remedy it on the spot), be taken to the nearest garage. A previous incident with unleaded where diesel was more appropriate at a less awkward time of day told me there’s few enough of those, and where there is one they work 9-5 if you’re lucky. I declined his kind offer, spent another three quid (plus extra for length of call) to 118500, asking to be put through to the police as I was in a dangerous spot where the road comes round a bend and straight onto the lights.
They kindly said call 101 – if you didn’t know before, that’s something you’ve got from this whine – and a nice lady answered at once. She and her pals apparently cover the whole Met Police area. While we talked, at least six police cars and vans screamed past over the minute of our conversation, sirens and lights at full power, making my “stuck in the road near the lights” problem sink into insignificance.
Quite seriously she replied to my request to be “pushed round the corner out of the way” with a, “we’re not insured for that in case of injury from pushing you”. Fair enough. I’d already had one slight scare, a guy asking me to wind down the window. “Do you have a cigarette?” I wished to God that those first ten smokes outside Central Foundation grammar school in 1958 had not put me off for life, but answered regretfully in the negative. He took a second look and said, “Shall I push you to the side?” That achieved, I was slightly less vulnerable to attack by car, but the traffic flow was beginning to increase.
Then I had a brainwave. On all my trips by road to France, I’d never needed to employ the customary kit for driving in that country, but now I got out the pristine, still in plastic, safety triangle and braving the outside, placed it – after some hesitant construction – ten yards behind the car.
No wonder the French are so particular with regard to safety. The first car to come round hove into view in my mirror and seemed to have taken the wrong course, right behind despite the evidence of the triangle and full hazard lights. An Addison Lee taxi, he went right over it; obliterated it and then sheepishly got the wreckage out from under his wheels and handed it back to me.
Then two police cars arrived simultaneously, one clearly on “push” duties, the other presumably on insurance injury watch, but the man and girl, backs to the car pushed me down the slight slope and I steered the car round into a safer spot. Met Police 1, AA 0.
I’d already been onto my man Michael from the garage where Raymond gets his cars, knowing he’s an early riser and more importantly, drives somewhere near my place of distress towards Fulham every day. After half a dozen ten-minute spaced frustrations, he answered at 5.45, dutifully arrived at 6.20 and having got a negative to his “have you a tow-rope?” turned up replete with said accessory.
“Sounds and looks like a fuel pump,” he announced and then attached the rope in preparation of pulling me through the middle of town with the dual requirement of my not smashing into the back of him from five feet away, and getting in and more importantly out of the Congestion Zone by 7 a.m. We got to the key place with literally two minutes to spare, but that elation was tempered by an incident passing Chelsea Bridge. Did you know the kerb sticks out there? Well it does, but I couldn’t see it behind the towing car and I hit it. Needless to say it was Michael that changed the wheel, taking less time than a Mercedes pit stop for fuel at Monaco today. Ask that other Michael, whose colours won yesterday’s Irish 2,000 Guineas in Ireland, who’ll be watching the Grand Prix today from the harbour.
We got to Fulham and the car “went on the machine” whatever that means and soon proved the roadside diagnosis correct. Michael’s smile was akin to my own face in the tipping days when I’d both selected and backed a Grand National winner – had a few of those.
All we needed now was the delivery of and replacing of pump and tyre. I was ready to go at 1.15 – the AA would have been a load of use – a full five hours after Ruth at Brian Meehan’s had called to enquire about my very unusual absence. “We over-ordered breakfast” was said part in fun, part in mild rebuke, but my stomach growled back in answer with only the remnants of a Greggs bacon roll and tea (only about £2.80 the lot), no wonder they issued a profits warning.
So I limped home, settled down to watch racing. Brian had a couple of fancied ones at Sandown, but neither hit the score sheet. Great day all round!
Friday was much better. Home this time, and watched Red Lady improve the customary 40 lengths from the debut run by winning for Brian by four lengths at Haydock and Sefaat running a fine third in the same race which had apparently contained half a dozen well-fancied (Hills’s best, Beckett’s can’t lose, Varian’s and Dascombe’s very good) fillies. Royal Ascot here we come and maybe also with the Dynaformer colt, Eshtiaal, who sluiced home at Yarmouth to only minimal praise from the At the Races tipster, a Timeform man who’d fancied the Mark Johnston top-weight.
The week ended with the “back” to last week’s “front”. Cousin Khee was in at Goodwood, just 2lb higher than York. In the event, he was only fifth, but not too discredited in face of ground “too soft”, track “too undulating”, jockey “Barzalona not the same as Ryan Moore”, and trainer Hughie “possibly too soon after York” putting the tin lid on a day that started with a four-hour ordeal via Hammersmith Bridge – unpassable – M4, ditto, M25 snail’s pace, M3 jammed. It’s probably a pity that the final leg along the M27 (an extra 60 mile trip in all) was clear or else we’d have turned round and gone home. You win some, you lose a lot more. Clever fellows, those Chinese.
Hope the other Michael gets back in time to see one of his, John’s and Derrick’s Coolmore contingent make life uncomfortable for Dawn Approach in the Derby on Saturday.