Timpsonian

Title quote by Terri Guillemets

By the time we got to Bangor to watch The Artful Cobbler run in a novice hurdle, there were no disabled spaces left in the owners and trainers car park, but we had a bit of luck. The guy on the gate, who we discovered has a wheelchair-bound daughter, took sympathy and moved some of the tape that was reserving a prime spot for the imminent arrival of the Princess Royal and her party.

It gave me only a short distance to push Alex to the owners and trainers entrance and across to the bar for our free lunch.

Fortunately there was enough hard ground to use inside the paddock so I didn’t have to push the wheelchair over the grass. Alex was able to give Jake Greenall her usual advice about not using the whip and wished him a safe ride.

To Alex, the welfare of both horse and jockey was far more important than winning, which on this occasion wasn’t even in my mind having seen the odds of 100/1. As expected The Artful Cobbler failed to get in the frame but sixth out of nine runners was good enough for Jake to say that he wasn’t disappointed and, “he will be all the better for the run”.

Before leaving Bangor I had a chat with Jake’s father Peter (Lord Daresbury) who was himself an amateur jockey and has more recently had the courage to be involved in racecourse management committees. Whenever he attends a race meeting Peter must run the risk of being berated by belligerent owners with their own personal axe to grind so he was clearly pleased to hear my praise for hospitality owners received during The Festival at Cheltenham, where Peter chairs the Catering Committee.

Ten days later we took the wheelchair to Haydock where Royal Palladium was performing on the day of the Betfair Chase. We were following the feature race so arrived in time for a late lunch. The Owners and Trainers car park was full of press and Betfair bigwigs and there wasn’t a single disabled parking space left. I had to drop Alex off in her wheelchair just by the entrance while I abandoned the car in a muddy field.

Fortunately one of the first people I met in the owners and trainers restaurant was Peter Daresbury who includes Chairman of Haydock amongst his racing responsibilities. I hope I didn’t ruin Peter’s day but it was the perfect opportunity to press the case on behalf of disabled access. You don’t realise what is entailed until you become a wheelchair pusher.

It was a bitterly cold day and Alex was wrapped in a thick rug and her Manchester City scarf as we saw Royal Palladium finish a disappointing fifth (“we were not helped by the handicapper who took too much notice of our performance in the Badger Chase at Wincanton”) It was time to leave, so I somehow pushed the wheelchair through the mud and we went home wondering when our luck was going to change.

Royal Palladium’s new stablemate Un Prophete made his first appearance in Alex’s colours the following Monday at Ludlow and failed to impress, coming 10th in a field of 14. “It was a useful run,” said Venetia, “He’s still a bit of a baby and will have come on a lot for the run.”

December was filled with disappointment. With Alex paying frequent visits to the Christie Hospital there was no chance of getting to a racecourse so we watched a succession of failures on the television. Pretty Mobile was 10th out of 13 in a novice hurdle at Leicester then The Artful Cobbler went all the way to Exeter to finish a respectable eighth out of 17 runners. Upbeat Cobbler came next to last at Huntingdon and Royal Palladium simply didn’t like the heavy ground in a 3-mile chase at Ffos Llas and was pulled up.

By the time we reached Christmas Alex was becoming more tired as the daily dose of strong antibiotics were fighting the infections in her liver but on Boxing Day she came downstairs to watch two of her horses perform at Huntingdon. Upbeat Cobbler didn’t repeat the early season form she had shown at Ludlow finishing fifth in a field of 10. Further down the card Safran de Cotte reverting to hurdles in an attempt to rebuild confidence struggled to keep up with the pace, despite the benefit of a career handicap low of 105. He was the last horse to finish by a distance.

When Alex came downstairs on 30th December to watch Another Cobbler in a Novice Chase on very heavy ground at Haydock the odds of 100/1 managed our expectations so we were encouraged when he finished seventh out of 10 runners.

In the last seven weeks we have had 10 runners and none of them picked up any prize money. This is by far the worst performance in the 13 years Since Alex got Transatlantic, her first race horse in 2002. I now know that this spectacularly unsuccessful sequence also marked the end of Alex’s racing career.

On New Year’s Eve we went back to the Christie Hospital, where our consultant Prof Juan Valle very gently told us that Alex had suffered enough prodding poking and procedures and from now on we should simply concentrate on treatment to relieve pain.

Alex never saw The Artful Cobbler win our first prize money in eight weeks when he came a creditable fourth in a novice chase at Huntingdon at 100/1. An upbeat Henry Daly rang me from the course and I had to tell him that Alex had died the day before. Ten days later a piece appeared on the Racing Post: “Daly pays tribute to ‘remarkable’ owner” in which he said, “I consider it an honour to have known her. She really was a remarkable person and what she did in providing foster care to so many children [90] was unbelievable”.

Venetia Williams, Paul Webber and Henry Daly were among the 1,000 or so people who attended Alex’s Thanksgiving Service. The congregation was drawn from all parts of Alex’s varied and colourful life, but there was a common theme, Alex was always a giver not a taker, she got most of her pleasure through helping other people. The majority of those present had first-hand experience of her generosity.

For the last 13 years Alex put part of her personality into the racing world and it was my privilege to provide the financial support needed to fund her favourite hobby. Originally the title of this book was going to be ‘How to Lose Money’ and doing the required research has indeed confirmed that racing isn’t cheap. I might have lost money but, thanks to Alex’s enthusiasm and interest in other people, I have learnt a lot about the racing scene and made lots of new friends along the way.

Lots of racing connections will miss Alex and I will miss her most of all. But I’m the really lucky one, I have spent two thirds of my 73 years with Alex and am therefore the person who benefitted most from her love of life. When we got married I could never have guessed that it would involve 90 foster children and 20 racehorses. Life with Alex was never dull.

John Timpson CBE is the Chairman of Timpson Ltd, his family business and one of the most well-known names on the high street. Originally a chain of shoe shops, the business, under the management of John, now specialises in shoe repairs and key cutting. His wife Alex is the owner of several racehorses and John writes about their experiences for Eclipse Magazine each month.

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