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Archive for the ‘Newmarket’ Category

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.

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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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Six weeks to go before the launch. I am still waiting for the copyright to a couple of pictures to be paid for by the racecourse, so that the electronic images can be sent to me; I also need them to provide some colour pictures of their own, and to say if they are happy with some revised wording I’ve composed for the last chapter.

While anxiously awaiting a response on these matters I sent the provisional text and all the pictures I have to the printers. With them they can make a start on formatting the book.  Any changes to the text should only be near the end and will therefore cause relatively little disturbance.  All the colour pictures will be going into a single block of pages, so that is a self-contained issue that shouldn’t disrupt the preparation of the rest of the book.

Normally I manage one trip each year to a foreign racecourse, and last week I went to Enghien, in the northern suburbs of Paris. Betting is all done via the pari-mutuel (PMU), the French equivalent of the Tote, and I was surprised to see very few windows for taking bets.  That was because machines had replaced them and punters were placing their bets using them.  I didn’t see them paying out anyone! I had a winner and the machine churned out a glorifed credit note, which I cashed in at one of the few PMU windows with a human in attendance.  I foresee the appearance of Tote betting machines in this country in the next few years.

Next week I will be going to Newmarket, not only for some racing but also to see a couple I met via my Bath research. I hope that they will be able to give me some information that will help me with one of the topics I have in mind for research in the post-Windsor era.

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The main development since last time was getting Windsor’s agreement to one of the options I put forward regarding the purchase of images. That meant a day of emails and phone calls trying to knock down some of their prices in order to stay within the budget set for me.  Mission accomplished, and the next task is to make sure the racecourse pays for those images so that they can be released to me; then I can put them in the package to be sent to the printer with instructions of where they go in the book.  Those instructions are nearly finished.  The index is done, and will only now need updating when pdfs are swapped by me and the printer.

The text has been proof-read by my wife and I’ve made some changes as a result of that. I haven’t read it through myself for a few weeks and I hope to do that before sending everything to the printer.

Windsor’s first meeting of the season is tomorrow afternoon and they are holding a special dinner after racing to kick-start their 150th anniversary celebrations.  Their next meeting, on the evening of Monday 18th, is free to enter.  Given good weather they could expect the best part of 10,000 people to attend judging by what happened when free entry was offered before.

My thoughts are beginning to turn more and more towards life after Windsor and the research I might do then. There will also be time then to do justice to three major new racing books that I possess, but am saving up to read when I’m not distracted by Windsor business.  The Heath and the Horse is a comprehensive history of racing at Newmarket with many fine examples of sporting art; Beckhampton, the story of famous racing stables, and Aintree: The History of the Racecourse.  These are works by proper racing historians whose standards I can admire but can hardly hope to match.

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The Uttoxeter book is finished – hooray! I have seen the proofs and agreed them.

The racecourse has decided to put the launch back to 22 November, a Sunday meeting that is a Festive Family Day. Then there are two fixtures in mid-December and another on New Year’s Eve, which are all potential selling opportunities.

I will be interested to hear what ideas for marketing it arise. Having done some local radio shows in the past to plug my other books, I had better brush up a few things to say in case I’m asked to do so again.

Meanwhile there is an end in sight to the Windsor research that I can do using material I have at home. There is, however, more to be done in libraries elsewhere. And I am still waiting and hoping for input from at least one of the family members connected with its management. There’s additional work to be done trying to trace the descendants of other families who used to be involved with it.

The fact that dealings with the printer took much less time than I’d originally estimated, based on my experiences with past books, implies that settling on a format virtually identical to the Bath book was helpful. Some of my earlier books were typeset by someone else and in hindsight that complicated things, as there was a need for them, me and a firm of printers to deal with each other. I can therefore allow myself a little more time to write Windsor, which I anticipate starting after Christmas.

I was glad to get some feedback from the most recent enquiry about Alfred Day, saying that my response helped to pinpoint some of the gallops on the South Downs that he used. I often don’t get to hear the outcome of other enquirers’ researches.

The predominantly fine weather of the last few weeks has encouraged me to go to quite a few meetings and although Brighton last Tuesday turned nasty mid-afternoon, trips to Fontwell and Newmarket took place in glorious conditions.  I am making hay before the hard winter that’s supposed to be approaching – although doesn’t someone say that’s going to happen every year?

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Another of those random obscure enquiries came along in the last fortnight.  This one was from a man whose great grandfather rode the winner of a big race at Croydon in the late 19th century.  I hope I’ve been able to point him towards some additional ways of pursuing his investigations.  Our correspondence has helped me too.  Some of his questions revealed the existence of an early 20th century publication that covered racing that I’d never heard of, and a pdf he sent me coincidentally included a 1910 photo of jumping action at Windsor.

I heard from a chap I met about ten years ago who was starting to research the Alexandra Park racecourse that closed in 1970.  He had a book in mind.  He is still working on it.  Mind you, he told me he’d also been doing a Master’s degree, which had been a personal ambition of his for even longer.

I went to Newmarket last weekend for the 1,000 Guineas, benefiting from a 2 for 1 offer – not for the first time for that particular fixture.  However, I was surprised to get an email a few days later plugging a similar for that meeting in 2016!  That really is looking ahead.

In the last fortnight I have been spending a lot of time, mainly using online resources, working on Windsor.  Hours spent on it go by very quickly, and at times I look back and see I’ve only covered a few years.  It must be like prospecting for gold, as the amount of precious metal left at the end after sifting and sieving all the raw material will seem small relative to the time spent digging it out.  But without that effort, there’s no story.  I’ll be doing more of the same in the next few weeks and months, plus finding more from libraries and by talking to people who might know something about its history.  Or to people who might know people who might know….

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I’ve enjoyed five contrasting visits to race meetings this month.  Firstly, a glorious summerlike day at Frankfurt races, with everyone in a very good crowd signing a petition to keep the course from being closed down; the authorities want to turn it into a football academy.  A quiet afternoon at Windsor, where in recent years I’ve only ever been on busy evening meetings.  This was a day dominated by rain; rain overnight and in the first half of the morning; the continual threat for the journey there and the first three races, followed by the threat turning into reality in the second half.   A dry, relatively mild afternoon for the last meeting of the season at Brighton, which in the past has suffered from fog, wind and rain.  A warm sunny day at Newmarket with a large crowd, lots of sideshows and a variety of musical attractions in bizarre competition; a classical trio on the strings, a Spanish senorita singing solo, and a thumping disco from inside a marquee, all within about thirty yards of each other.  Prior to that I had completed the clearout of dozens of surplus racing books by giving them to the local library either to sell or to add to their collection.

Yesterday it was Chepstow, for a good quality card full of promising horses that will be seen more and more as the National Hunt season gets going. There was a 33/1 shocker in the first race, but nevertheless there were people in two groups near where I was standing who clearly had bet on it.  One pair of ladies, who did not look like archetypal form students, were literally jumping for joy at being able to collect £200.  Later on in the day a chap in the Tote queue ahead of me, who had clearly avoided suffering from thirst, collected even more than that.  He may well have patronised the beer tent, which had an Oktoberfest theme, and though my bratwurst was rather more brat than wurst, the slightly over-the-top versions of German national costumes worn by the barmaids (and a very game barman) will live long in the memory.  The long drive back was made to feel very short thanks to the company of two chaps to whom I was introduced by a mutual friend.  So displeased were they by the onerous journey they had made to Chepstow via public transport, they were glad to forego a possible repetition for the homeward trip by getting a lift back to London.

With Uttoxeter on hold, the subject of the next book is already very much in mind, and I hope a decision will be made before too long.

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