Archive for January, 2017

I’ve had a few more ad hoc enquiries from people doing their family or local history reserarch this month. One of them to do with Brighton was particularly satisfying.  The question was about a picture of a horse called Suspicion, ridden by Gordon Richards, after winning a race there.  They were trying to establish the date; was it the 1950s, perhaps?

A quick search indicated a definitive answer wasn’t going to be easily obtained, and I spent longer on it than I’d anticipated, having found this horse running at Brighton in 1936 aged eleven. Form books were then scrutinised in reverse order to reveal this mare had run about a dozen times every year over ten seasons, winning 25 races altogether.  Five of them were at Brighton with Richards on board, between 1931 and 1935.  I wound up sending details of all her wins to the enquirer, with my surmise that her owner was related to a family well-known in racing today.  They were very pleased to have so much information.

It made me wonder how many other forgotten favourites like Suspicion there must be; not top class horses, but popular for winning more than their share during their careers, their names now languishing undiscovered in the pages of dusty old books of racing results. My research helps me come across some relatively conspicuous course specialists like St Athans Lad and Certain Justice at Fontwell whose exploits were noticed in newspaper articles, but what about those old-timers whose victories were spread across a number of tracks, or who weren’t big names?  Suspicion won nine times at Brighton in all, but I never came across her when researching my book.

Over the last few years I’ve occasionally supplied a regional newspaper column with weekly racing articles, providing holiday cover for their normal author. Now I’ve been asked to supply them on a regular basis, which is very nice.  It was great when retirement meant I no longer had a string of day-to-day work deadlines to worry about any more, so is it perverse that I welcome having a new bit of routine like this?

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The Fallen Idol

The furore about the Jockey Club’s plan to make Kempton the next defunct racecourse by selling it for housing arises from the shock value of the announcement, compounded by the fact that it was made heedless of the attitude of Spelthorne, the local authority. How could the Club be unaware of the Council’s strongly-held view that there should be no development?

The Jockey Club was a self-perpetuating oligarchy that ruled racing for well over 200 years, with a series of Lords and Sirs not wanting to rock the boat. For much of the 20th century they often appeared behind the times, while innovations such as starting stalls came in years after they did in other racing countries.  However, this changed in the 1990s when a group of progressive, forward-looking senior stewards willingly gave up many of their functions to a new body, the British Horseracing Board, which later became the BHA (British Horseracing Authority).

This was an inspired move in terms of the Club’s reputation, for all the eyecatching day-to-day controversies like peculiar verdicts in stewards’ enquiries and hoo-hah about the whip rules were no longer their province.  Furthermore, the Club had left themselves with valuable physical assets in the form of racecourses and the vast Newmarket gallops.  Gradually the old jokes died out and instead the BHA became the target for the criticism they used to suffer.   The Club’s main focus became the management of over a dozen tracks by their Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR) arm.

Building on the Kempton estate must have been in JCR’s mind ever since the all-weather track was laid down in 2006. Originally the National Hunt course was going to be dug up, but industry pressure persuaded them to retain it and discontinue flat racing on turf.  The outcome was that a large part of the estate, including the Jubilee course that extends most of the way to Hampton alongside the A308, lies unused.  I stand to be corrected, but I believe there are no footpaths traversing this area and therefore no public benefit from it other than it is not concreted over!  So there is, in theory, plenty of space that could be used to build houses and keep the existing track.  Perhaps final judgement about the development should be suspended until we know more about the numbers to see how persuasive the purely financial case is – or understand better why JCR need to start selling the family silver.

That said, JCR and the Jockey Club have taken a terrible fall from grace by going public about this oblivious of Spelthorne’s inevitable reaction. In the last ten years or so they have done really well, developing the image of a competent outfit, emphasising the Club’s long history and desire to work in the best interests of racing.  Most recently the rebuilding of the Cheltenham enclosures has been regarded as a great success.  But expressing the desire to close Kempton, a busy and successful racecourse, flies in the face of this and damages their newly-won reputation in a way that may take years to repair.

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It’s more than 25 years since I first started researching. My target then was defunct racecourses.  I planned to list them all and maybe write a book on what was, surely, a unique subject in which nobody else had done any work.  As I dug further into it, and spent increasing amounts of time in libraries all round the country – and going racing at hitherto-distant courses and gradually ticking them all off, collecting the set in 2001 – it became apparent there were hundreds and hundreds of places were racing used to take place.  After three or four years word reached me that somebody else was writing a book on the same subject, and he was well ahead of me.  This turned out to be Chris Pitt, whose A Long Time Gone has become the definitive work on racecourses closed in the 20th century, a very sensible sub-group on which to concentrate.

Thwarted in my quest, but still keen to find out more about old courses, I turned my attention to a local defunct track, Croydon, which closed in 1890 and was therefore outside the scope of Chris’s opus.  Encouraged by a kind reception to the little book I wrote about that course, I transferred my attention to Brighton and then to other “live” courses.  However, I know of two other researchers with more stamina than me who have worked assiduously for many years on the theme of all defunct courses.  One of them, John Slusar, developed a website with information about these old tracks; its name, greyhoundderby.com, suggests horses weren’t his initial interest.  He has now created four publications from the material he has accumulated.  The courses are grouped geographically – England south of Hatfield, England north of it, Scotland & Wales, and Ireland – in order to make four manageable-sized books under the general title Racecourses: Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.  Read more about the 1,600 courses he has discovered and order the books via  http://greyhoundderby.com/Racecourses%20Here%20Today%20and%20Gone%20Tomorrow.html

I’ve ordered them as a birthday present from my wife to me, which means I’m not allowed to look at them until the fateful day in a few months time.

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