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Archive for the ‘Other readers and researchers’ Category

I should mention a couple of new recent connections arising from my Salisbury research.  One chap is a member of a family that has sponsored a race there in honour of an ancestor for many years.  He is busily trying to find out all he can about his relative, who started as an illegal bookmaker.  This was in the days when the only off-course betting was via credit.  Before the introduction of betting shops in 1960 the vast majority of people relied on the local bookies’ runner to go round pubs, clubs and workplaces to collect their little cash bets and to pay out any winnings.  From ths sound of it there’s a good story to be told and there may be detailed records lurking in another relation’s loft.  My contact’s main problem is finding time to do this as well as the day job.

Another lady who is writing a novel asked me to help check some of her descriptions of racing in another era, which form part of her story. I confirmed some things, gave her a few pointers, and added to her information about actual results in the year her story was set.  I will be intrigued to see how much she adds fact to fiction.  The draft excerpt she sent me looked very good and when the book comes out I will report it here.  I hope it will do well (and have my name among the Acknowledgements).

My own Salisbury work continues to consume lots of hours sneakily. One doesn’t notice how many fly by.  Time in the British Library Map Room yesterday was fruitful, though it will mean returning to already-dredged sources to look again, using different search terms.

I was glad to hear after a long interval from D, who encouraged me to start this blog, despite having no interest in racing. The family health issues she has had to contend with put the triviality of racing research into perspective.  Her new blog should be required reading for anyone with a very elderly relative.  If she gives me the nod I will post a link to it.

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It makes so much difference to be able to walk the courses that I write about, in order to get a proper feel for them.  I regret only having walked Windsor, and that was unaccompanied.  I went round my other courses several times; I never tired of them.  On Thursday I donned the wellies and stomped round Salisbury with Jeremy, the executive director and clerk of the course, and one of the stewards.  Its undulations and turns are now much more real to me.  I knew the mile-long straight course is not actually straight, and bears gently to the right; I could see that on TV.  Yet in situ I found the last three furlongs were straight.  I’d heard of a dip somewhere in the straight, and now I’ve seen it – or I should say I’ve seen a little rise, but the descent into it I thought was hardly perceptible.

I also now appreciate their problem with golf balls.  The golf course is alongside much of the track and within a loop at the far end.  During our walk we found seven or eight balls lying on the racecourse.  The length of the grass is such that you can’t see them until you’re almost on top of them.  They are potential hazards, if one should be kicked up by a galloping horse into the face of a horse or rider following.  Jeremy recalled an occasion seeing golfers playing shots from the racetrack back onto the golf course and was indignant and the notion of them churning up his beloved turf. In any case they were were technically “out of bounds” and should not have been playing a shot from there.

More contacts have been made who I hope can provide me information about Salisbury’s past, and there’s been one particularly thought-provoking email from a lady seeking historical information from me.

That major statistical exercise I mentioned before is finished, and now the stats only need regular maintenance.  “Only” implies there’s not too much effort, but judging by the first week’s updates it’s amazing how much time rushes past when doing it.  That second newspaper column is also now part of what has quickly become a weekly routine of racing work alongside the Salisbury research.

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Since my last post I appear to be getting even more racing-related work offered to me. I find it hard to turn down.  At the moment I’m in the middle of a big statistical exercise involving spreadsheets and formulas which I hadn’t used since I was at (proper) work, and I’ve discovered a few handy Excel functions that have made quite a difference to the time it’ll take to complete the job.  There are also two new racing book projects in the air which I could happily start immediately if it wasn’t for Salisbury.  Not, of course, remotely commercial, but each would be of interest to a select few, and interesting for me to do.

There are other research problems I hear others talk about, like being unable to find out when a certain person was born or died, to which I say I’ll have a go. Why I should do any better than them, though?  The case I’m thinking about would help prove my gratitude to one of the people who between them filled a day for me in Salisbury and the vicinity, sharing their memories of racecourse history.  This lady kindly offered me tea and an hour and a half of her time when her husband was unable to meet me as planned.  It won’t hurt for me to try and solve her question.  She and the others I met that day, as is wont to happen, also said, “You should talk to so-and-so,” and, “What about Mr X?” As a result phone numbers have been obtained, so-and-so and Mr X have been alerted to expect me to get in touch, phone calls have been made and plans are afoot to meet others.  I have to repeat my long-held assertion that people are wonderfully willing to help when racing history is the subject at hand.

Recalling my last post, cutting back on going to the races is not my only option if commitments grow further, although critics may say that four trips in the last fortnight is a schedule that could and indeed should be reduced quite easily.  Another is to reduce the frequency of this blog.  Let’s see how the next fortnight goes.

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I’ve finished going through a bulging folder labelled “History” that’s normally kept in the Salisbury racecourse office.  Borrowing it has allowed me to note, copy and scan its assorted contents.  Amongst the goodies there are photos from the 1930s onwards that could wind up in the book, copies of old racecards and newspaper articles, and a large photograph of a splendid 1802 painting, unfortunately spoiled by a big crease.  That could be a job for Photoshop.

Four years ago I bought a couple of Victorian photo albums owned by Binda Billsborough in the hope there’d be clues that would add to my knowledge of the Alfred Day family and help me complete the family tree.  To be frank, my study of the photos didn’t yield much to my benefit.  S, another researcher of the Days, showed some interest in them but nothing more came of it.  I’ve decided to let them go, and put them up for auction with Henry Adams of Chichester on 11 May.

I was pleased to bump into one of the Racing Post’s top features writers at Fontwell races the other day, a chap I’d met briefly a few times before.  He gave me some valuable pointers about interviewing people, writing to a deadline and the address of someone who may be able to contribute to the Salisbury book.

It looks like I may be getting a second regional newspaper column to ghost-write each week, and some other statistical work.  So, what with the reports I do already for two courses’ websites of their race meetings plus Salisbury research, the amount of time I spend on racing is increasing to the extent that I might have to rein back on actually going to the races!

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I was saddened to read in the Racing Post last month about the death of the former trainer John Powney.  I first got to know him in 2011 when researching Bath.  John had lots of roles in the racing world over many years but he was best known for training for the TV entrepreneur David Robinson in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Robinson made a fortune out of his chain of shops renting TVs, at a time when they were far too expensive for most people to buy.  He was one of the biggest owners around before the oil-rich Arabs came on the scene.

John’s father Hugh trained too, as did his uncle John. His grandfather, another John Powney, owned horses and trained across the road from Bath racecourse.  He died there in 1894, in the same room as he was born 86 years before.  His best horse was The Hero, who won a host of races in the 1840s.  He was a generous soul who kept open house and wasn’t very well off by the end of his life, thanks to betting.  His motto was, “We’ll win it back next year,” but in the end he hadn’t!  Many of the Powneys are buried in a remote churchyard in the hills above Bath.

The 19th century John Powney married into the Day family, and like many others of that clan “my” John was interested in the family’s history. He kept cuttings albums about his ancestors’ exploits more than his own, and allowed me access to them to help with my books about Bath and the background of Alfred Day.  He was already in his eighties when I met him but very sprightly, helping out at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket.

He was a gentleman of the old school, but not fixed with crusty “it was better in my day” views. I knew his health had deteriorated in the last few years but the report of his death still came as a shock; I thought of him as almost indestructible.  I wish I had met him and his wife earlier, as it was always fun listening to their old racing memories.  I should have taped all his stories for posterity.  There’s another tribute to him on the blog of Newmarket trainer and former Mayor John Berry.  http://stable-life.blogspot.co.uk/ and look for the entry headed “second hand news” posted on or around 13 March.

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Salisbury research continues steadily. There is so much material to go through that one steps back and questions the hours being spent on it, but putting in the effort is necessary – you never know if that “scoop” will be on the next page,  So far I’ve concentrated on its existence prior to 1899, which is when it started staging meetings run by the Bibury Club, a very exclusive institution that had already been going for at least a hundred years.  They were then forced to relocate their fixtures from Stockbridge.  The reason why is, I think, pretty well known.  I hope I can find a way of telling the story in a way that retains the attention of readers who are already aware of it.

Acting on a tip-off about publicly-available information about the location of some private race meetings in the Bromley area I put my walking boots on the other day and not only found it, but realised I had overlooked another very obvious source when I was researching the subject last year.  I may treat myself to a little more time on Bromley.

Having talked about long-forgotten but popular horses in their time such as Suspicion last month, I find the National Horse Racing Museum featured another one on its blog recently, the admirable Red Prince II, a star of the 1890s.  https://t.co/J4zt0saNsv

I’ve been to Epsom many times but never to the Rubbing House until the other day, when I was there for lunch. By luck rather than design I was seated at a table that looks more or less down the length of the finishing straight, with the stands on the left and Tattenham Corner in the distance.  It was a fine view to have on a fine, almost spring-like day.  Modest numbers of people were out on the downs, exercising themselves or, more commonly, their dogs.  The service road that leads to the pub is a great benefit to the locals, for they can leave their cars there and get out onto the great invigorating open space that is free for all to use.  They can extend their walk if they wish by using a public footpath that crosses the track close to the winning post, though not on race days.  I wonder if anyone has ever compiled a list of the rights of way that cross all our racecourses?

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The Blood Is Racing is a brilliantly titled book, for its author Andrew Ager is a descendant of the Day family of nineteenth century trainers and jockeys.  Family lore, combined with a desire to challenge the received wisdom that some of his ancestors were distinctly unscrupulous, encouraged him to research the subject for fourteen years.  He writes with enthusiasm and from the heart.

This unusual book basically divides into two sections. The second part concentrates on the Cannons, a branch of the Days that produced several top jockeys from the 1870s up to the First World War.  The first and meatiest section covers the stories of the principal members of the Day family in detail.  This takes in the Bibury Club, an exclusive group who were associated with a fashionable meeting at Stockbridge racecourse, another subject dear to the author as the course was put on the map by his family.  Its regrettable demise in 1898 signalled the end of Stockbridge as a major racing centre.

A number of racing scandals in the 1830s and 40s are recalled, notably those affecting the Days. Ager’s provocative contention is that the leading Turf administrator of that period, Lord George Bentinck, turned against jockey-turned-trainer John Barham Day and took every opportunity to do him and his family down, using the weight of the Jockey Club’s supreme authority to reinforce his view.

While Ager certainly compiles enough material to form a workable defence, a fair part of it depends on the autobiography forty years later of John Barham Day’s son William, who could just as well be accused of bias. This reader wasn’t wholly convinced by his proposition, which is compromised by the structural difficulty of having individual biographies mixed with spin-off topics and that series of scandals.  Duplication occurs, and a lack of rigorous editing means one is distracted by ambiguities and excess detail, which is a shame.

The Cannons were successful and relatively uncontroversial, and their story is much easier to read. It’s a mystery why there hasn’t already been a biography of them, for it was interesting to learn not just about the leading lights – Tom senior and Mornington – but also the less well-known members of that branch of the family.  For example, Tom’s son Charles rode, and he lived well into the second half of the twentieth century, until just a few years before the birth of the author, his grandson.

The text is accompanied by a terrific variety of illustrations, and the author shows his workings with copious footnotes and appendices. The under-editing makes it a challenging read, but anyone interested in nineteenth century racing should buy it, wallow in the atmosphere of Victorian-era racing conjured up by Ager and make their own minds up about whether his ancestors were hard done by.

There’s more about it, and a link to Amazon at http://www.thebloodisracing.com/

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