Archive for March, 2011


I’ve been trying to identify that telegraph pole I referred to a month ago, which featured in the Francasal case.  For those of you that don’t know it, this is the story of a ringer (a good horse masquerading as an inferior one) who won at Bath.  To increase their profit the crooks cut the telephone wires near the racecourse.  This meant that bookmakers around the country, wanting to react to all the bets being put on this horse, could not let their colleagues at Bath know they should reduce its odds.  In those days the odds at the racecourse dictated the Starting Price, which was how the vast majority of bets were settled. 

The Francasal affair was one of the most dramatic events in the history of racing at Bath.  The story has been covered extensively by the highly respected racing journalist and author David Ashforth in a chapter of his book Ringers and Rascals, but one can hardly skip over it in a history of Bath races.  To repeat much of what he says would be plagiarism, so I have to find a different way of relating the story.  I can do this by retelling it in my own words and using other sources, but I also want to highlight some details that are less well known, or have more significance for local people – hence the quest for the telegraph pole!  Not that I’m suggesting it should have a blue plaque attached to it.

Some fresh research I did last week hasn’t helped me locate the pole, but I did come across some information that wasn’t included in Ringers and Rascals.   That’s not the first new information I’ve discovered about the case.  When I say new, I’ve seen no sign that it’s been made public before.  I hope that when my book is published in July it will be the first time these parts of the Francasal story have appeared in print.  

Arranging the physical production of the book needs to get under way.  I hope to meet my contacts at the racecourse soon to select the pictures we use and think about the design of the front and back covers.  And we still haven’t decided the title…

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I am nearing the end of the long process of getting all the relevant Bath material into one document.  In a week or two I should be able to start putting it in better order, cutting out the least interesting bits and generally making it flow.  I am still happy to take on board fresh material, if anyone has got anything they think is interesting.  I have a few people to speak to in the hope that they will supply me with a few useful late additions.  Eventually I’ll have to bring the shutters down.  More immediately, we need to finalise which pictures we are going to use and how much we are willing to pay.

I am very pleased to have received kind responses to my letters to previous book-buyers which advertises the forthcoming one about Bath.  It does, however, remind me of the pressure there is for Bath to live up to the standards of earlier books.

Some of my correspondents write about racing history on their own account, and it is difficult to resist the urge to buy their books.  This week I received one about the 150 year history of the National Hunt Chase.  More information can be found at www.nhchase.co.uk.  I look forward to reading it.  There are some interesting racing history books around at the moment, some of them on fairly obscure but nonetheless interesting subjects.   I continue to be pleasantly surprised at the ideas people have.   We should all buy each other’s books (if we don’t already) to boost our sales figures, as well as for the enjoyment of  reading and learning about something new.

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This week has seen me drawing in more text from different sources into the master copy.  I want to get one long draft ready before I edit it and polish the remainder to make it read coherently.  I think of this stage as text-bashing, which I am sure is a term Jane Austen used for it. 

I revisited my old mailing list in order to write to buyers of my previous books, alerting them to Bath being in preparation and encouraging them to follow its progress here. 

I’ve been advising one of my Bath contacts who is interested in racecourse architecture and wanted to know where he might find the oldest remaining buildings.  We know that parts of the Doncaster and Newcastle stands date from the 18th century, but Bath is in a possible fourth place.  That’s subject to correction, of course.   I hope he will be able to confirm the date I have in mind for one of the stands there in time for publication.

Two or three creative-thinking friends have independently suggested I should try to make writing pay its way more.  I will give it serious thought, as I do subsidise these books to some extent and the expenses have mounted up this year due to making several trips to Bath involving overnight stops.

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The Croydon Races

My first book, The Croydon Races, was completed in 1999.  It tells the story of the 19th century racecourse which was, in terms of jump racing, second only to Liverpool in importance.  Contrary to expectations, it did not take place on the site of what was later Croydon Airport.   After a few years at Park Hill, not too far from East Croydon, racing settled at Woodside, over a mile to the northeast of Croydon.  There is no physical trace of the course remaining, but most of it is still in recreational use as playing fields. 

Locally it was almost completely forgotten, and the local authority’s Heritage Development Officer was glad I had come up with some new history, if you get my drift.  The normal perception of Croydon is 1960s skyscrapers springing up out of a general nothingness that was there before. 

I have no spare copies for sale, but the online racing bookshop browzers.co.uk does.

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The Brighton Races

Despite the title,  this book  is not just a history of racing at Brighton.  The Brighton Races also describes the unique nature of racing there now.  Physically, there is the unusual nature of the course, but in addition the playground atmosphere of Brighton itself somehow impregnates the racetrack.   “There is also the feeling that going racing there of all places is a bit of a skive, that even if you have taken a legitimate day off work there is a feeling of play time, that you are doing something just a little more light-hearted than say going to Newmarket or Ascot.  The sun shines at Brighton. You smile as you say it.”

Some of the action in Graham Greene’s classic story Brighton Rock was set at the racecourse.  The accuracy of the seedy image it gave Brighton, and by implication the races, is reviewed in a chapter on crime at the races.

The course has been under threat more than once in its long history, when it has fallen out of favour for one reason or another.  A major turning point came in 1848, where in one dramatic week there was a riot, a whirlwind, and an invasion of the grandstand, as well as the racing itself.  Another came in 1998, when Northern Racing took over the management of the course and set about eradicating years of neglect.

Channel 4 racing commentator Simon Holt has contributed a foreword describing his childhood memories of the track, and the book concludes with a short story set in and  around Brighton races by journalist Ian Carnaby.

Published in 2003, the Racing Post review of this book describes it as a history “told magnificently and in fine detail … lavish and well illustrated ….  make sure to read this.”


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In 2008 I published a book on the history of Fontwell Park racecourse.  With a foreword by the renowned ex-jockey and trainer Josh Gifford, the 175 page book describes the track’s history from its opening in 1924 and tells the story of the people and horses who have made it such a popular venue for a day at the races. Among the stories of course winners is that of Monaveen, the Queen’s first winner as an owner. Other champions such as National Spirit and Comedy of Errors have graced the Fontwell Park turf, and there have also been a number of course specialists like Certain Justice and St Athans Lad who rattled up 25 victories between them. Illustrated with dozens of photographs, including many never before seen in public, the book has been essential reading for all fans of Fontwell Park.

“A little gem”, according to the Racing Post, The History of Fontwell Park can be purchased from the racecourse for £12.50, including postage and packing, or for £10 if buying in person.

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Visiting Bath

I’m back home after two enjoyable days in and around Bath, with lots of meetings with different connections to the racecourse or its story.  It was one of those occasions when an ambitious timetable ran according to plan, except one meeting was changed to an even more convenient time for me, and another that I hadn’t been able to finalise took place with five minutes’ notice!  My thanks to Neil, who is interested in the 18th century course at Claverton, Michael, who has established a Jane Austen connection and researched one of the early clerks of the course, and Henry, whose family have lived near the Lansdown course for at least a hundred years.  Between them they have shed light on things I hadn’t known about, or deduced, and confirmed some others that I was merely supposing.

The two days also included a visit to Gloucester Archives, a couple of Bath Literary Festival events and a quiet country churchyard a mile or two from the course.  Buried there are several members of the Powney family, which was very closely connected with the racecourse in the 19th century.  John Powney trained across the road from the track for about fifty years.  Something at the churchyard puzzled me.  I found a gravestone for a couple of his 18th century ancestors, a husband and wife.  Next to it was another gravestone, for the same couple.  I wonder why?  Perhaps I can find out more.  This is just the sort of distraction that comes up when researching a subject.  It may not be directly relevant to the history of racing at Bath, but it’s a mystery to me and I’m going to have to investigate it.

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