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Definitions

The Newmarket Town Plate was in the news this week, partly thanks to the Qatari Sheikh who rode the winner last year being unseated three furlongs from the finish and crashing through the rails.   He wasn’t badly hurt, and only needed a stitch or two to patch up a cut.

It is a race that needs careful definition, as it’s the longest flat race run on a British racecourse, though it’s not run under Jockey Club rules.  It’s been going since 1665, on a unique three and three quarter mile course which doesn’t quite comprise one full circuit.  This year’s race prefaced the first day of the big July meeting, but I distinctly remember seeing it one October when it was part of an Arab horse race meeting.

I’m pretty sure the conditions as well as the timing has changed over the years.  (I’d be glad to hear from anyone who knows.)  Currently riders have to apply to take part, and they have to be “genuine amateurs” – my phrase – as those participating in this year’s race didn’t appear to be the people that are licensed to ride in normal races for amateurs.

Definitions also needed care when I wrote about Bath, which was ostensibly to celebrate their 200th anniversary in 2011.  However, racing around Bath started about a hundred years before on the other side of the city.  The first racing on Lansdown, the area where today’s track is, was in the 1780s.  After a hiatus racing resumed in 1811, but not where it is now; it was about half a mile nearer the city.  Not until 1831 was the current track used.  The wording for publicity for the celebrations couldn’t, in reasonableness, spell out all this.

There was also the old sort-of trick question, “What is the longest race run under Jockey Club Rules?”, to which the answer was the Boat Race.  Is this an old wives’ tale?  I’ve read that this is not the case now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it used to be true.  The JC rules define disqualifiable offences such as crossing in front of your opponent.  I think it’s quite likely that the organisers of the early Boat Races would have used the JC rules rather than invent some of their own.  That’s a line of research I wouldn’t mind pursuing,  but not right now, as Salisbury beckons.

A few days in Uttoxeter the week before last gave me a welcome opportunity to revisit the friends I made there, who were so wonderfully helpful to me with my research. It’s five years since I started work on that book and, looking back on it now, it was such fun, and there was an interesting story to tell.  Well, I found it interesting.

Not for the first time, I stayed in Rugeley (the hotels in Uttoxeter are often much more expensive).  Although its greatest fan wouldn’t call it a number one tourist destination, and its four giant cooling towers are visible for miles around, its residents are very close to proper countryside and one of its pluses for me is the drive from there to Uttoxeter.  The twisting and undulating B road, with its views of rural Staffordshire is always very pleasant.

I planned this trip to coincide with a race meeting on a relatively quiet day, which suits me.  The big music nights and festivals they have there continue to pack in the crowds.  They’re not sitting on their laurels, either, and they are formulating plans for more improvements to the facilities.

My two weekly racing columns have become great time-stealers. What effort I can get away with putting into them, versus the time I actually spend thinking about and writing them to try and make them that bit better, are two very different amounts.  Another time drain has been my acquisition three or four months ago of a small share of a horse, particularly in the last fortnight when I have been to see him run twice at far-flung Midlands race tracks.

These are my excuses for not doing too much work on Salisbury in the last two weeks. However, a couple of regular weekly appointments have just come to an end and though they’ll resume in about three months, until then I have extra time to devote to it.  I feel that I am at least halfway through the information-gathering, and as I had mentally set aside 2017 for the research that means I am on target.

I should mention a couple of new recent connections arising from my Salisbury research.  One chap is a member of a family that has sponsored a race there in honour of an ancestor for many years.  He is busily trying to find out all he can about his relative, who started as an illegal bookmaker.  This was in the days when the only off-course betting was via credit.  Before the introduction of betting shops in 1960 the vast majority of people relied on the local bookies’ runner to go round pubs, clubs and workplaces to collect their little cash bets and to pay out any winnings.  From ths sound of it there’s a good story to be told and there may be detailed records lurking in another relation’s loft.  My contact’s main problem is finding time to do this as well as the day job.

Another lady who is writing a novel asked me to help check some of her descriptions of racing in another era, which form part of her story. I confirmed some things, gave her a few pointers, and added to her information about actual results in the year her story was set.  I will be intrigued to see how much she adds fact to fiction.  The draft excerpt she sent me looked very good and when the book comes out I will report it here.  I hope it will do well (and have my name among the Acknowledgements).

My own Salisbury work continues to consume lots of hours sneakily. One doesn’t notice how many fly by.  Time in the British Library Map Room yesterday was fruitful, though it will mean returning to already-dredged sources to look again, using different search terms.

I was glad to hear after a long interval from D, who encouraged me to start this blog, despite having no interest in racing. The family health issues she has had to contend with put the triviality of racing research into perspective.  Her new blog should be required reading for anyone with a very elderly relative.  If she gives me the nod I will post a link to it.

My search for historical Salisbury racing material took me to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham last week.  Wiltshire can’t be doing too badly to afford a place like this.  It’s a modern building, with a generous amount of space, plenty of staff, all of whom were efficient and friendly.  Copious local records, indexes, general, county and town history books were on the shelves.  The archived documents I requested were provided within ten minutes.  Facilities in the reception area included a drinks machine, water cooler, lockers, a place to chat and eat your packed lunch, clean loos … there’s even a sandwich van that apparently stops by at midweek lunchtimes.  It’s open for eight hours, five days a week.  There’s an upstairs too but I had no time to explore that.  Others like me who were waiting on the doorstep at 9.30 looked like members of a club in all but name; they had all been working on their own family history trails for a while and were pally with each other.  They swopped stories about their recent holidays.  One of them, I heard, had had trouble with a nit abroad.  Foreign nits, that’s to say of the bug variety, are clearly not to be laughed at, as this chap was bitten so badly he needed medical attention.  You can never know what strange new insights your research may bring forth.

Next to the main archives area was a large adjoining roomful of people who, I learnt, were volunteers typing up sundry Wiltshire records for digitisation. Bravo, I say, making research easier for others, like me.

Inevitably not every item I requested was useful.  Some was racing-related but didn’t apply to Salisbury.  Others were relevant but trivial.  Even so, there’s a place for trivia in my books.  I found a few maps of the racecourse but one in particular has puzzled me, as the clearly-marked outline of the track doesn’t seem to be in the right place.  The scale was marked in chains, each of which is 22 yards, or a tenth of a furlong, and north wasn’t at the top.  Intriguingly it was overlaid with pencil marks that show the shape of the track that I expected, though that implied the scale was very different.  I have a photocopy and will need to study that more alongside other old maps.

I have a the usual sheaf of scribbly notes to type up and I must get on with them before they become indecipherable and I forget what I wrote down.

It makes so much difference to be able to walk the courses that I write about, in order to get a proper feel for them.  I regret only having walked Windsor, and that was unaccompanied.  I went round my other courses several times; I never tired of them.  On Thursday I donned the wellies and stomped round Salisbury with Jeremy, the executive director and clerk of the course, and one of the stewards.  Its undulations and turns are now much more real to me.  I knew the mile-long straight course is not actually straight, and bears gently to the right; I could see that on TV.  Yet in situ I found the last three furlongs were straight.  I’d heard of a dip somewhere in the straight, and now I’ve seen it – or I should say I’ve seen a little rise, but the descent into it I thought was hardly perceptible.

I also now appreciate their problem with golf balls.  The golf course is alongside much of the track and within a loop at the far end.  During our walk we found seven or eight balls lying on the racecourse.  The length of the grass is such that you can’t see them until you’re almost on top of them.  They are potential hazards, if one should be kicked up by a galloping horse into the face of a horse or rider following.  Jeremy recalled an occasion seeing golfers playing shots from the racetrack back onto the golf course and was indignant and the notion of them churning up his beloved turf. In any case they were were technically “out of bounds” and should not have been playing a shot from there.

More contacts have been made who I hope can provide me information about Salisbury’s past, and there’s been one particularly thought-provoking email from a lady seeking historical information from me.

That major statistical exercise I mentioned before is finished, and now the stats only need regular maintenance.  “Only” implies there’s not too much effort, but judging by the first week’s updates it’s amazing how much time rushes past when doing it.  That second newspaper column is also now part of what has quickly become a weekly routine of racing work alongside the Salisbury research.

Since my last post I appear to be getting even more racing-related work offered to me. I find it hard to turn down.  At the moment I’m in the middle of a big statistical exercise involving spreadsheets and formulas which I hadn’t used since I was at (proper) work, and I’ve discovered a few handy Excel functions that have made quite a difference to the time it’ll take to complete the job.  There are also two new racing book projects in the air which I could happily start immediately if it wasn’t for Salisbury.  Not, of course, remotely commercial, but each would be of interest to a select few, and interesting for me to do.

There are other research problems I hear others talk about, like being unable to find out when a certain person was born or died, to which I say I’ll have a go. Why I should do any better than them, though?  The case I’m thinking about would help prove my gratitude to one of the people who between them filled a day for me in Salisbury and the vicinity, sharing their memories of racecourse history.  This lady kindly offered me tea and an hour and a half of her time when her husband was unable to meet me as planned.  It won’t hurt for me to try and solve her question.  She and the others I met that day, as is wont to happen, also said, “You should talk to so-and-so,” and, “What about Mr X?” As a result phone numbers have been obtained, so-and-so and Mr X have been alerted to expect me to get in touch, phone calls have been made and plans are afoot to meet others.  I have to repeat my long-held assertion that people are wonderfully willing to help when racing history is the subject at hand.

Recalling my last post, cutting back on going to the races is not my only option if commitments grow further, although critics may say that four trips in the last fortnight is a schedule that could and indeed should be reduced quite easily.  Another is to reduce the frequency of this blog.  Let’s see how the next fortnight goes.

Albums to go

I’ve finished going through a bulging folder labelled “History” that’s normally kept in the Salisbury racecourse office.  Borrowing it has allowed me to note, copy and scan its assorted contents.  Amongst the goodies there are photos from the 1930s onwards that could wind up in the book, copies of old racecards and newspaper articles, and a large photograph of a splendid 1802 painting, unfortunately spoiled by a big crease.  That could be a job for Photoshop.

Four years ago I bought a couple of Victorian photo albums owned by Binda Billsborough in the hope there’d be clues that would add to my knowledge of the Alfred Day family and help me complete the family tree.  To be frank, my study of the photos didn’t yield much to my benefit.  S, another researcher of the Days, showed some interest in them but nothing more came of it.  I’ve decided to let them go, and put them up for auction with Henry Adams of Chichester on 11 May.

I was pleased to bump into one of the Racing Post’s top features writers at Fontwell races the other day, a chap I’d met briefly a few times before.  He gave me some valuable pointers about interviewing people, writing to a deadline and the address of someone who may be able to contribute to the Salisbury book.

It looks like I may be getting a second regional newspaper column to ghost-write each week, and some other statistical work.  So, what with the reports I do already for two courses’ websites of their race meetings plus Salisbury research, the amount of time I spend on racing is increasing to the extent that I might have to rein back on actually going to the races!