In hot pursuit

Stuart King from Turf Legends describes his experience of riding in one of the pursuit vehicles at the Cheltenham Festival 2009…

Have you ever wondered what all those vehicles are doing haring round the inside of the track at racecourses? Here’s a guide to the Cheltenham ‘convoy’ in running order.

  • Ahead of the field: Camera Vehicle filming the field in running.
  • Alongside the field: Ambulance (self-explanatory really).
  • Doctor’s vehicle showing a red and white chequered flag
  • Vet’s Vehicle showing an orange flag
  • Support Vehicle 1 carrying screens in case of a faller.
  • Support Vehicle 2 carrying screens in case of a faller.
  • Control Vehicle usually driven by the Head Groundsman.
  • Jockey Transport ready to take fallen jockeys (walking wounded only) back to the Weighing Room for the next race.
  • Mobile Horse Catcher available to catch loose horses as quickly as possible.

The Doctors, Vets and Ambulances are duplicated at various strategic points around the course ensuring that there is always cover in case of an incident. In an ideal world the vehicles follow the race around incident free and return to the start position every time, however we all know that falls happen on a regular basis, indeed more so at Cheltenham when every runner is looking for that special win.

For anyone who thinks that the list of vehicles looks excessive, remember that Cheltenham prides itself on getting emergency help to a fallen horse or rider within one minute of their parting company – as does pretty much every racecourse in the country.

So what’s it like to follow a race at Cheltenham Festival? This is how the Gold Cup 2009 looked from the steering wheel of the jockey transport vehicle…

Five minutes before the ‘off’:

Parked in the ‘emergency vehicle lay-by’ opposite the Guinness Village. Timeform Radio 87.7FM on in the vehicle, and we’re listening to the various opinions and chat. The horses come out to parade for the ‘big-one’; we watch as the team get them into order for the parade up past the grandstand.

The ‘Order of Merit’ music plays (Saltwater by Chicane, if anyone’s interested) and the excitement mounts. The horses are released from the parade and canter past down to the 3m2f start. The tension grows a little more.

Start the engine in plenty of time – just in case. Check radios are audible. The Jockey transport vehicle carries three radios – Radio 1 is known as the ‘vencom’ which links to the doctors and vets so that pursuit drivers can monitor any incidents occurring. Radio 2 is the ground-staff link for fence attendants and Radio 3 is the link with the paddocks, Head Groundsman and Clerk of the Course.

The off:

The Gold Cup start is very near the vehicle lay-by, so pursuit will start from here. Timeform Radio switches from general chat to live commentary from the race-callers; the race is imminent. The horses are coming out onto the track. Check handbrake is off and vehicle is in gear. And they’re off!

The field clear fence 1, confirmation comes from the fence attendant on Radio 1 – “Clear 1”. Followed quickly after by “Clear 2” – good news. The first sound to arrive is the V8 of the TV vehicle as it growls past. Then the field thunders past, the Gold Cup is run against the inside rail, so the field passes very close, the noise from the grandstand and the sound of the horses waft over the truck like an express train. The ambulance passes followed closely by five more vehicles, screaming in low gear as they pull away. Then it’s our turn, pulling out as quickly as possible but trying to keep traction on the loose gravel, we’re away.

Down the back:

“Clear 3”, and we’re off down the back, rattling along at close to 40mph. At this stage all is quiet, apart from the race commentary on the radio. The field looks to be moving well and still fairly tightly bunched. Hit the fibre-sand that is covering the road for the 2m4f start and the truck fights its suspension for a few seconds, then we’re across. “Clear 4” (The water jump). Now there’s a chance to calm down for a few hundred yards, check mirror – horse catcher is close behind; check forward – everything’s looking OK. Couple of quick jinks in the road then we’re up to the top of the hill.

Radio 3 comes alive with directions from the control vehicle, splitting the vehicles so that we get full cover. Radio 1 gives information that some of the field are getting a bit detached so the vehicle is full of voices from all directions.

The Gold Cup is run on the ‘New course’ so there’s a sharp right turn at the top of the hill, then you hit the woodchip that covers the Old Course crossing, get the truck down into second gear so that it doesn’t dig in, give it a bit of gas and feel the back end twitch a bit. Then we’re across and turning left handed back towards the grandstand. “Clear 8”

Grandstand – first lap:

Then we’re heading homewards for the first time, the horses are getting a bit of a breather but as drivers we have to be aware of the woodchip crossings and keeping our vehicles on the road. One circuit completed, One to go, the entire field is still standing as we pass the Gold Cup start.

The road jinks around the main course-crossing, the convoy is rejoined by the vehicles that peeled off at the top of the hill. We go past the bridge. (Not many people are aware, but there is a small stream running through the centre of Cheltenham racecourse).

Now we’re opposite the first of the grandstands and can feel the crowd rather than see them. The viewing bank is packed but security are keeping the road clear, or almost clear as a photographer dives out in front of the truck, brake hard just as he ducks out of the way. Round Courage bend and all still up, although we are getting a few detached, check mirrors and see that the horse catcher vehicle has slowed to stay behind the last horse. Snoopy Loopy, my secret fancy for the race is now pulling up. No time to groan, drive on, silently cursing.

Down the back – second time:

The pace is gradually quickening as we head down the back and over the Old Course for the second time. As we round the top bend the radios suddenly all go off at once: “Faller Faller Faller.”

As we arrive at the fence at the top of the hill, we can see a loose horse cantering away, that’s one problem sorted – but where’s the jockey? We abruptly halt, along with Ambulance, Doctors & Support Vehicle 2. The jockey is on the ground but is moving – relief. We get the screens ready just in case, but this time it looks as if we’re not going to need them. It’s Andrew Thornton off Miko de Beauchene, Andrew is bruised but OK and after a quick check-up by the doctors elects to jump into our vehicle for the ride back to the Weighing Room.

The finish:

By this time the race is reaching its crescendo. We can hear the crowd roar carrying right over Prestbury Park, then it’s over. Who won? We don’t know. We missed the end of the Gold Cup!

Time to get Andrew back to the weighing room, this time we can go steady. With a big race we need to make sure that the jockeys are delivered all the way, as who knows how many disgruntled punters there are out there, wanting to take a pop!

We leave the course and drive round the back of the hospitality buildings, this is a bit of a surreal world filled with catering staff taking a quick smoke break and generally blocking the road. After a steady drive we arrive back at the Weighing Room. Andrew thanks us then gets out of the truck and makes his weary way into the medical centre for a quick check-up. We turn around carefully in the crowd then head back to the lay-by to do it all over again.

Apparently Kauto Star won the 2009 Gold Cup with Denman showing his old spirit for a gallant second. We missed the end of one of racing’s greatest spectacles – but we were a part of it, and not many people can say that.

To read an interview with Cheltenham’s Head Groundsman Tony Howland – click here

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