Richard Farquhar, dressed in tweeds with a pint of Guinness in his hand, said he was going to "walk the courses" for charity.
I looked at him, a pint of Guinness in my hand, and thought 'that's cool, you're going to walk once around each racecourse in England for charity.' Like tossing a dollar in the bucket on the way out of the races, a token gesture, a conscience clearer, an effort but not an exploit. Then he explained further, that it was going to take 13 months, covering 3,000 miles.
I dropped my Guinness.
The conversation occurred in March at Cheltenham, weeks before Farquhar was to embark on his journey connecting all 60 racecourses on mainland Britain, from Newton Abbot in the south to Perth in the north, Yarmouth in the east to Ffos Las in the west and points in between. Farquhar arrives at each racecourse on raceday and takes one lap around the course. All to raise money for pancreatic cancer, a disease that killed Farquhar's father, his friend John Hills (and closer to home, our friend Dominic Galluscio) and Racing Welfare, the charity that takes care of British horsemen in need.
I called Farquhar Tuesday, five months since that initial conversation.
"That's a very good question, 'what on Earth was I thinking?' " Farquhar said, laughing.
The 52-year-old father, husband, businessman was on a break, working in his London office as a fund manager, between his most recently completed leg from Catterick Bridge to Cartmel that finished Saturday and his next scheduled walk from Cartmel to Carlisle that starts Monday.
"It all came about after my father died about 3 ½ years ago," Farquhar said. "I thought to myself, 'the only thing I've ever done for charity is grow a pathetically feeble mustache.' After my dear old dad died, I thought I wanted to do something once in my life that really, really, really means something, I had no idea what."
About six weeks later, a friend of Farquhar's called and said he had just been to Great Leighs Racecourse, completing his 60-course checklist. Farquhar made his list and it came to 28, then he started thinking about a charity idea involving visiting every racecourse in Britain.
"I thought I can't simply go racing because no one is going to sponsor me to just go racing because it's all I've ever wanted to do. I can't simply drive. I can't ride a horse to every race because I can't ride, I can't ride a bicycle because of a knee, then I thought maybe I could walk," Farquhar said. "Then over the course of the next couple of months, I did what any sensible, sane person does and thought of all the good reasons I couldn't do it, like the fact, I'm too old, I'm not fit enough, I've got a job, I've got a family and a million other reasons. I stuck it to one side and thought, 'silly.' "
Then Hills, who trained in Newmarket, died of pancreatic cancer, at exactly the same age as Farquhar, 10 weeks after being diagnosed. Hills had four kids, like Farquhar.
"Everybody loved John Hills, he lived life to the full," Farquhar said. "The racing industry is a very compassionate, warm community and I thought they'll get behind it. I said yes, my family said yes and my employer said yes."
Farquhar's oldest daughter, Minty, began to make a plan. Farquhar started walking March 20. He's logged about 1,275 miles and raised £145,946 so far.
"I'm in the middle of a really busy spell, I did about 320 miles in August and I've got to do about 360 miles between now and three and a half weeks time, I'm pretty much in the guts of it now," Farquhar said. "The one bit that's really surprised me, I'm enjoying the walking part far more than I imagined, I saw the walking as a means to an end, but I'm having such fun doing it."
Family, friends and members of the racing community join Farquhar on his walks, across some of the most beautiful parts of the world. So far, it's only rained six out of his 70 days in the wild.
"The best part, without a shadow of doubt, has been the reaction of people within racing, they have been unbelievable in their support, big owners, trainers, jockeys, media," Farquhar said. "From every part of the world of racing, we have people putting their hand up and saying this is good, this is something that racing needs to back. People see the map and think that is one mother of a project. It's got that slightly mad English feel to it and it makes people smile, clearly they think the man is an idiot, we should support him."
Farquhar, who's lost 20 pounds so far on the walk, will finish his last leg at the Craven meeting at Newmarket in April. He and his dad went to the meeting for 28 years in a row. It will be the first time Farquhar will be back at the meeting since he lost his dad.
"That will be a big old day," Farquhar said.
By the end of the conversation, I had signed up for a leg in October and another leg or two in March. Anybody want to go for a walk?
- To donate to Walking the course, visit www.walkingthecourses.com