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Archive for May, 2018

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.

 

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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!

 

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