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I was pleased to get one of those occasional, random enquiries about something really obscure the other day.  It concerned a stud groom employed in the late 1880s at the Heather Stud near Bath racecourse.  The initial enquiry came in to Bath, and they passed him on to me, mentioning my book.  I had never come across it, but I dug out some information from the excellent British Newspaper Archive, which I think added a little bit to the enquirer’s knowledge.  Unfortunately for a someone who was a mere employee there’s usually a limited amount of information out there once you’ve gone beyond births, deaths, marriages and censuses.

I continue to be near the end of the full first draft of Salisbury.   Yesterday I settled down to make inroads into two discrete subjects.  Instead, I started on a third, found an old photograph that created a new mystery; solved another one that I wasn’t sure was a mystery; and found a ten-years-later epilogue to a story I thought had finished.   On balance, though, quite productive.  Yet I remain near the end, and feel just about the same distance from it as I did yesterday morning.

I made my first visit of the year to Salisbury races this week.  The first of what may be very few, as nearly all of their other meetings are weekends, evenings or days when I have other things lined up.  Something will have to give.

They have a fine new information panel on the wall of the rubbing house, explaining what it is and that it’s at least 300 years old.  As for the racing, I received a good tip.  “If Lady Rothschild is present, back her horses.” I was told this moments after she arrived in the winner’s enclosure to greet one of her horses, which had just scored at odds of 10/1.

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Bad behaviour

Despite domestic issues consuming a lot of time recently I have now finished the first rough draft of Salisbury, with the exception of a couple of self-contained chapters.  And I’ve made a good start on one of those.  If I keep up the momentum the whole thing should be done by the end of the month and I can then get on with polishing it.

I was sorry to hear of an altercation there the other day between a trainer and some yobs.  It’s a symptom of a racing-wide problem.  Undesirables always come out in greater numbers at the end of the football season and make summer Saturdays a no-go day for the genuine racing fans.  It’ll be interesting to see if using sniffer dogs at the entrance, which some tracks have used lately to detect drugs, becomes common.  Deterring the drug carriers will help.  Which course will be first to introduce a system that will limit the number of drinks each racegoer can have?  A method of rationing, by giving each person three tokens when they enter, might be worth a try.  Racecourses should be duty bound to put safety and a pleasant environment ahead of profits – otherwise they will suffer in the long run.

A small comfort is the fact there has always been bad behaviour in and outside the racecourse.  Three card tricksters, race gangs, protection rackets, pickpockets, welshers – they all feature in my books!  The old race gangs tended to confine their most violent crimes between themselves as the vied for supremacy.  The recent racecourse brawls also appear to blow up between groups of like-minded drunken idiots.   Not that you’d want to be a bystander when they came to blows.

On a cheerier note, I hope to increase my own racegoing soon.  Nine trips so far in 2018 is pathetic and I’m going to finish a long way short of my record for a year, which is 54.

What follows is the full version of my review of a new book, Pitchcroft: 300 Years of Racing in Worcester.  Due to space limitations it was a shortened version that appeared in the Racing Post last Sunday.

Any book by Chris Pitt should be an automatic purchase for a keen racing fan or student of its history.  He is the author of the highly-regarded A Long Time Gone, the definitive study of racecourses closed in the 20th century and Go Down To The Beaten, little-known stories of Grand National failures.  He’s now turned his attention to the history of Worcester races, which have been run on the Pitchcroft, close to the city centre, for at least 300 years.  The river Severn, flowing alongside it, plays a major part in the story.  Flooding has been a frequent if unpredictable occupational hazard.

The course’s first heyday began when steeplechasing took off in the 1830s and the Worcester Grand Annual Chase quickly became an important race.  Its importance declined after the 1866 running, when Lord Coventry withdrew his patronage.  One of his runners had collided with a pony that strayed onto the track and he felt the management were responsible.  The race became a shadow of its former self and limped on until 1933.  It’s good to know that it’s being resurrected this year.

The flat was always low-key in comparison to jumping, but it seems perverse that racing on the level had to be discontinued in 1966 for economic reasons.  The track had more than its fair share of Saturday dates that racecourse executives would kill for nowadays, but crowds stayed away.

Nevertheless it was a good move, and a golden age from the mid-1970s brought several top-class jumpers to compete for good prize money in sponsored races such as the ATV Today Chase.  Tingle Creek, Night Nurse, Silver Buck, Wayward Lad are just some of the stars that ran at Worcester.

The quality started declining in the mid-1980s when some of the key sponsors fell by the wayside.  Happily, in the last 20 years the course has found a niche providing summer jumping..

The author can always be relied upon to find the quirky stories, like the ones about the lion fight, the five-legged horse and Sir Edward Elgar’s love of the course.  He recalls people such as Ted Skryme, John Whitt and Jack Bennett, perhaps not well known now but key figures on the racecourse in the 20th century.  Their efforts deserve to be remembered, for without them the course may have gone under, in more ways than one.

The book is nicely presented and copiously illustrated.  It is a fine record of what, until now, was a historically underappreciated sporting venue.

Pitchcroft: 300 Years of Racing in Worcester costs £13.99 + £2.00 p&p and is available from: Pitchcroft 300, Porters Hill, Droitwich, WR9 0AN. Email: pitchcroft300@gmail.com Copies are also available from Worcester Racecourse.

 

Iconoclastic

I completed the review of the Worcester book and I imagine (but don’t know) that it will be published next Sunday.  I’ll be interested to see how much of my prose will remain.

I’ve reached a mini-landmark with Salisbury, by writing something up to the present – more or less – and now I have to go back through each of my other sources chronologically to add fresh stories from them, and fill in a few gaps.  I can see the time will come quite soon that I find anecdotes that I’d forgotten I had.  After all, I have been researching it for 18 months.

I have another assignment to find 20 iconic events about another racecourse.  With the correct definition of “iconic” in mind, this is of course impossible.  It would be almost as hard to find 20 fantastic events.  I’m hopeful of coming up with 10 interesting incidents, but the next 10 will probably be no more than quite interesting.

Last weekend I was in Frankfurt, the venue for a memorable trip to the races in 2014.  The course was being threatened with closure, which seemed a great shame.  The track was a regular oval, on which you could see the horses all the way round.  The grandstand wasn’t new, but it was fine.  There were lots of seats upstairs, which is where my party were sitting when before one race abseilers descended from the roof with a “save our racecourse” banner.Frankfurt rennbahn protest.jpg

A local referendum voted in favour of keeping the racecourse, but the turnout wasn’t big enough for the result to count.  It was such a shame that it closed a year later, to be turned into some football training academy.  As if Germany is short of footballing talent!

 

Boxed in

Salisbury writing has continued, and I’m now touching on the 21st century.  Which is not to say it’s nearly finished; I’m referring to one source to make an outline of events, and I will go to others in due course to fill in the gaps.  And then I’ll go back to the very beginning and feel very dissatisfied with what I’ve done and make lots of changes.

One of the discoveries I made when researching the book is, I hope, going to be announced – I might say unveiled – before the first meeting of their season on 29 April.   More about that next time.

By going to Fontwell a fortnight ago I was breaking a seven-week racing-free drought.  That’s an almost unprecedented period for me to be absent from a racecourse in the last 20 years.  I blame winter.  The cool breeze that looked like it would mitigate the effect of the sunshine wore off during the afternoon and it became almost warm.  Not as warm as in the last three or four days, though.  One of the highlight’s was Simon Holt’s commentary of the last circuit of a three mile chase.  The duel between the two leaders was wonderfully conveyed – have a listen to it on the Attheraces website.

The last of the boxes of old Sporting Lifes that Simon gave me over a year ago remains in our conservatory.  Not only have no further inroads been made for the last three months or so, but it has been surrounded by a dozen or so other cardboard boxes of non-racing archives that I’ve had to look after on behalf of a charity I’m involved with.  Some of their contents will go to a proper archive, some will be put up for sale, some will be taken to the dump.   None of it as quickly as my wife would like!

I’ve been given a new book about the history of Worcester racecourse to review.  It’s by Chris Pitt, the author of A Long Time Gone, the definitive work on defunct courses of the 20th century, and Go Down To The Beaten, a collection of offbeat stories about horses that didn’t win the Grand National.  I fancy I could write the review without reading the book, but I will do the decent thing.  It (the review, that is) should with any luck be in print in the Racing Post on the Sunday after Worcester’s first meeting of the season, which is on 10 May.

John Saville

I learned recently of the death of John Saville, the author of Insane and Unseemly, an unbeatable account of racing during the war years – mainly WW2.  It was a subject never before written about, and when I first heard about his book I thought, “Of course!”  It was obvious, when you came to think about it, what a huge and fertile field it would be for the racing researcher.  Or rather, it was obvious once he thought of the idea and carried it through.  He had burrowed through old government files to find the complete story of decision-makers that went through the should we-shouldn’t we continue the ultimate frivolity of horse racing while millions were being killed and millions more were in deadly peril.  Insane and Unseemly is a great work of reference as well as being very readable.  It’s one of the very best books about racing.

I have relied on it so much when writing my own about the history of individual racecourses.  I never met him, but he was unfailingly helpful whenever I posed him questions on wartime racing, which I did as recently as February.

I can do no better than quote from a 2008 review of his book.  “He is a long-standing member of the congregation of Derby Cathedral, and deputy chairman of the Diocesan Board of Finance.

He said: ‘If the Church of England and horse racing seems an odd combination, I should say that the Bishop of Repton and his wife are both keen racegoers, and that I still go racing occasionally with the former Canon Theologian.’

He went on, ‘My aim is to tell a story that has never been done at length before, in a way that will interest both racing people and readers of more general social life.’  In both he has succeeded in style.”

His funeral service is in Derby Cathedral at 1pm on the 13th.

Two weeks ago I’d got to the beginning of WW2 with Salisbury, and since then I’ve only moved on to 1942.  Quite a bit was happening then, but that’s also true of things at home.  I have collected an archive of non-racing paraphernalia, contained in about 12 boxes and baskets, and I’ve had to catalogue it to see what should be kept, destroyed, or given to someone else.  The decisions are not solely mine, so that slows things up.  That’s a contrast with racing archives research, where I am the only arbiter of what I look at or ignore.

The diary is fairly clear in the next ten days and I should be able to progress into Salisbury’s peacetime.  Holiday weekends are good for book work.  Traffic and bad weather are good reasons not to go far at Easter.  Come to think of it, traffic and good weather would be even better reasons to stay in and get on with it.

Last time I advised watching out for David Pipe’s runners in the Midlands Grand National, but he had none.  Perhaps he knew how awful the weather would be there.  From the comfort of my armchair I’d describe it as “intermittent sleet blizzards”.  The management did jolly well to get the meeting on and keep it going.  I expect the crowd was a bit down, but as they had virtually sold out in advance I don’t suppose too much damage was done financially.

The 2018 turf flat season began yesterday with the Lincoln Handicap as usual.  Nobody makes any play of the fact that the Brocklesby Stakes, traditionally the first two-year-old race, goes back just as far as the Lincoln.  Both races began in 1849, although the Brocklesby was then a handicap over a mile and a half.  Mind you, the Lincoln started off over two miles.  It came down to its present distance of one mile in 1855.  It wasn’t until the closure of Lincoln racecourse that these races moved to Doncaster to kick off the 1965 season.