Thursday 20 April began with drizzle — a welcome sight for horsey folks, especially those of us destined to be galloping around Cheltenham Racecourse later that day for the Champions Willberry Charity Race (www.championswillberry.org.uk).
Upon arriving at the course, the riders were met by the race organisers and Bob Champion, who then took us on a course walk. We wandered through the empty parade ring, down the chute and onto the course. Looking right, we spotted the finish line and brimmed with excitement. Then we looked left, and saw the hill. Our mouths dropped open and we fell quiet, apart from one, alarmingly uninformed rider, who proclaimed: “Wow, bit of a pull up here, isn’t it?”, to which the rest of us replied, wide-eyed: “Um, yes — it’s actually quite a famous hill!”.
Bob was brilliant, giving us simple yet invaluable advice: settle into a rhythm and save some energy for the hill.
Standing at the bottom of that hill, I became acutely aware that my little horse, Miss Inga Sock (Inga), had never run more than a mile in a race, and today, she’d have to run 1 mile 5 furlongs, and tackle the monster hill at the end. I decided that if she felt tired, I’d just let her trot! I know, not very competitive of me, but the last thing I wanted was for her to suffer on my account.
Early on in the day I made firm friends with fellow rider and all-round superstar, Abi Dean. Abi and I laughed our way around the course walk and into the marquee for lunch. I managed to eat a little as we nervously waited for 5pm when we had to go to the weighing room to get dressed and weigh out.
Silks on and group photos taken, the parade of equine celebrities took centre stage. We cheered as Big Star, Chilli Morning, Sprinter Sacre and Valegro calmly lapped up the applause from adoring fans. What an honour to be in the presence of those horses.
Then, the super-horses were gone and our horses were lead in. There was Inga, ears pricked, plaited up and white socks gleaming, thanks to the wonderful Nicky from Eve Johnson-Houghton’s yard. Inga was noticeably smaller than the other horses, but looked so confident and ready for action. Before I knew it, I’d been successfully legged up by my partner, Alan. Phew! A couple more times around the paddock, and then we were off down the chute and onto the course. My only instructions were to not get left at the start…
The start, however, was a muddle. The first few horses got about six lengths on us before I realised they were letting us go! But Inga looked after me. Off she went, and it was only after the first two furlongs that my brain caught up with me… This was IT! We were galloping around Cheltenham!
We hung out wide and kept out of trouble. Half way around the course I asked Inga to close up — she responded well. One mile done — surely Inga must be getting weary now? I urged her on: “I’ve still got some in the tank!” she said. We caught up with Abi, and around the final bend we went. We hugged the right hand rail, looking for fresh ground. I couldn’t believe it — Inga was still travelling. I asked her if she had any more to give… “Yes!” she said! Head down, she tried her hardest to drive up the hill. We may not have had the speed to carry us to the front, but Inga finished beautifully, bunched in the middle of the pack.
What a professional Inga is — I didn’t for one moment feel unsafe. Nicky and Alan were quickly with us, Nicky undid Inga’s noseband and lead us back up the chute, cheers ringing out all around us. In the unsaddling area Alan removed the saddle, Inga had a good drink and buckets of water were thrown over her, to get her temperature down. She recovered well and although tired, she looked happy.
I lugged my saddle and weight cloth back to the weighing room, then went to get changed and tried to take everything in. Inga and I had galloped up the famous Cheltenham hill, beaten Sir Mark Todd and ridden a finish against Tina Cook!
Then, the reality hit me. We were there because of a girl who wasn’t. Hannah Francis would have been unbelievably proud of what the Willberry team, alongside the Bob Champion Cancer Trust achieved that day, but my overwhelming feeling was regret that she wasn’t able to ride in the race. She would have loved it. I channelled Hannah’s unwavering strength last Thursday — she was my motivation when I was nervous. I’m honoured and thankful that I was chosen to ride on behalf of two such brilliant charities, who, with the help of back up teams, raised in excess of £100,000.
I am so grateful to everyone who donated, to Dominic Elsworth for teaching (and torturing!) me on the Equiciser at Oakey House, and to my band of supporters who came to Cheltenham. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to trainer extraordinaire, Eve Johnson-Houghton and her team for letting me ride out so much, as well as providing a wonderful horse. A massive thank you also needs to go to Bliss of London for providing a beautiful saddle, and generously donating it to to be auctioned off for the charities. My final thanks go to my two heroes of the day: Miss Inga Sock, and Alan Daly, who both did a sterling job of looking after me.
Ali talks us through why she has "roughly…
Although I should concentrate on dressage for a while, I’m going to continue riding out, but just a couple of times a week. This experience has been a whirlwind of highs and lows. I doubted myself and worried myself silly. I worked hard, long hours and struggled to find time to fit much else in.
Would I do it all again?