Racing: Merry followers get a run for their money: Richard Edmondson shares the experience and the expense of owning a perpetually resting racehorse that has at last got a taste of the track

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The Independent Online
IT IS one of those places that is off limits. Like the staff-room at school or the altar of a church, the racecourse paddock is the stuff of imagination for outsiders.

Yesterday, at Worcester, members of the Faversham Racing Club (this reporter included) unhooked the braided rope to witness the racecourse debut of their horse, Merry Wand.

Merry Wand's jagged progression to competition after injury is not untypical of the lot many owners suffer. Bought two and a half years ago for pounds 8,000 and put into training with Richard Lee at Presteigne in Herefordshire, the gelding was the vehicle for a collection of unrealistic aspirations.

The club had been unable to meet the asking price for two other Lee horses, Market Leader, subsequently the collector of pounds 15,000 in prize money, and debut winner Donosti, and settled instead for a horse with dubious form credentials earned in the Brecon Beacons. Pulled up in a point-to-point at Talybont-on-Usk.

This club, like all others, draws on a disparate crew that includes fruit producers, an unemployed man and journalists. Twenty embarked but only 15 remain after the disillusionment of paying out with nothing coming back in.

Among those on the wayside was a man whose wife failed to see the investment value of Merry Wand. Among those present yesterday was another whose spouse does not even know of his involvement and who receives club news via a call to his local pub.

'I've had two horses before and they've been disasters,' he said. 'I've told my wife I wouldn't get involved again but I love it so much I can't help it. Don't write about this, but I've told her I'm at work.'

Merry Wand himself has not been at work for much of his life. Injured on the gallops shortly after purchase, the horse has spent the last 18 months convalescing in a field in Kent. Known by his keepers there as 'William' and now at the stable as 'Ambrose', the horse has been given other names by club members who have paid around pounds 2,000 each to keep him alive.

Owning a racehorse is not a cheap business. They do not just eat grass and run. There are the bills for shoeing, entries, transport and veterinary attention, which appears to include all ailments including dandruff.

Financing Merry Wand has been discussed in some extraordinary general meetings of the Faversham Racing Club. For those with strings of horses, the sight of adults congregating in pubs and picking their way through buffets before discussing the agenda for a single horse must be perplexing. Even more so for others whose budgeting extends no further than covering the weekly food bill.

Money matters were secondary though when Merry Wand arrived at Worcester yesterday. A glance at the Timeform Black Book revealed that the gelding had run in four point-to-points, three of them in Ireland, during which he had shown 'no signs of ability'.

Such denegration was submerged, however, by the sensations parents feel before sports day. A combination of apprehension and excitement.

An initial meeting with trainer Lee produced the information that Merry Wand was well and that his first runner, Rochester, would 'win if he didn't fall'. He didn't and he didn't.

There were those then who were hoping he was also wrong when he said that Merry Wand would be unsuited by the ground and was unlikely to complete the course.

As the beast emerged into the pre-parade ring this prognosis was deemed nonsense by his blinded funders. Ignored were the vicious flank scars sustained in a juvenile accident, and ignored were the credentials of the other 24 runners.

The bookmakers took a different view, offering 66-1 about the horse's chance. The racegoers' pool was even more dismissive, with Merry Wand a 633-1 chance on the Tote just before the off.

They must have known something. Starting on the far side of the course, Merry Wand jumped the first three hurdles fluently but was a spent force as he passed us in the stands. By the time Dai Tegg, his jockey, decided to call time the race proper was still to develop. Merry Wand was pulled up before completing a full circuit.

In the circumstances, it is the tradition for trainer and rider to emit soothing noises. Lee and Tegg did not disappoint, citing the gelding's racing immaturity and the boggy turf as excuses for this display.

'I think he'll be all right and we'll put him over fences now,' Lee said. 'If he doesn't show us anything after six races maybe we'll have to think again.'

For most of the listeners though just the once appeared to be enough. After the waiting, the bills and the doubt, the horse had at least visited a racecourse. The final slice of enjoyment was to pose for a photographer as a mud-spattered Merry Wand returned to be unsaddled. Only one Faversham Racing club member shied away from the lens. His wife would not have understood.

(Photograph omitted)

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