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Archive for March, 2017

Having titled the last post “The Galloping Major” I noticed last week that, by coincidence, the Talking Pictures TV channel was showing a film of the same name.  It’s a black and white film made in 1951; I’d never heard of it, and I had to watch it because it’s a comedy about people who live and work in a London suburb who buy a racehorse.  I’m afraid that nowadays a lot of the action and humour would only amuse young children and people at the other end of the age spectrum who’d be interested in the film’s nostalgia value.  It was a good illustration of how, as recently as the early 1950s, horses were not an uncommon sight on city streets and there were still stables tucked away in built-up areas.  You could also watch out for a host of not-yet-famous names in bit parts such as Kenneth More, Sid James and Charles Hawtrey.

It would also amuse those of us interested in old racecourses, as the film gives us a lot of action at the old Alexandra Park track – where they went round and round a tight circle before dashing up the straight to the finish – and later on at the Grand National. The leading jockey Charlie Smirke has a speaking role, as does Raymond Glendenning, the best-known commentator prior to Peter O’Sullevan.

I get the impression that there’s a fair number of cheap and cheerful racing-themed films made in this country in the middle of the twentieth century.  I’ve got the DVD of one of them, a rather more grown-up 1954 production from Ealing Studios in colour called The Rainbow Jacket, which has scenes at Newmarket and Lingfield and stars Honor Blackman, Robert Morley and Bill Owen.  They may not be great works of art but they’re good clean fun, and for the racing historian they provide a chance to see not just shots of racecourses but also the way people looked and behaved on them.

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To Salisbury this week for my first proper meeting with Jeremy, the clerk of the course and in essence the general manager.  I gleaned quite a bit of fresh information, and the icing on the cake was the “history file” he has accumulated during his tenure, containing an assortment of cuttings, articles and, best of all, old photos.  I’m looking forward to browsing through that.  I was given a tour of the racecourse buildings, many of which are undergoing refurbishment in time for their first meeting on 30 April.  One that wasn’t is the old rubbing house.  We’re not sure when that dates from, but it’s visible on a 1773 map.

What with the tour and meeting Jeremy and other racecourse staff, I feel a bit more at home with the place now.

Driving there a different way from my usual route I found much to admire in the quiet side roads that undulate through the pleasing countryside round about.  The racecourse itself is on the top of a ridge three miles out of town, and on a fine day, as it was when I was there, being able to look down on Salisbury and the famous cathedral spire gives you one of those all’s-well-with-the-world moments.  The pub lunch didn’t do any harm, either. Reminded that it was National Pie Week, I did my bit to support the cause.

I like to go to Sandown for one or other of its two annual military meetings and did so on Friday.  These fixtures have their own special character, thanks to two of the races being confined to past or present military personnel.  The main event was the Grand Military Gold Cup, first run in 1841.  This was won by Captain Guy Disney, who followed up on his win here last month, which was the first time a jockey with a prosthetic leg had won a race.  However, before the first race I had been impressed with Major Domenico d’Alo, who not only removed his helmet when greeting connections in the parade ring but also bowed fractionally as if to kiss the ladies’ hands.  Yes, he was an Italian.  He held back when he realised from the body language that a gentle handshake and the now-conventional embrace were all that was expected.  He hadn’t ridden in this country before, but I’d done a bit of research earlier that revealed he’d taken part in 140 races at home, and was therefore more experienced than some of our own riders.  My small investment on him proved worthwhile when after the last hurdle he crouched low in the saddle and swung his whip swiftly and rhythmically – albeit in a style of his own – to galvanise his mount to a three length win.  His delight will have been augmented when the band struck up the Italian national anthem as he made his way to the winner’s enclosure.

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