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Archive for the ‘Other readers and researchers’ Category

I always wanted to work in racing, and it’s ironic that now I’m retired from my proper job I find myself now with four weekly writing assignments as well as other planned and impromptu tasks.  Having to study websites such as the Racing Post and watch TV racing under the guise of “work” is a dream come true.

In fact, this work and the necessary preparation has significantly reduced the time available to compose the Salisbury book. Whereas I used to have “plenty” of time, it’s now moved along the spectrum towards “more than enough”.  The rough first draft already goes up to the end of the 19th century.  Even though I will have to backtrack to write discrete chapters about certain subjects that don’t fit into a strict chronology, and the 20th century is the one with most material, I am well on the way.  Days or half-days with no appointments or outings are often earmarked for Salisbury.

I was pleased to see my latest book review in the Racing Post last Sunday, especially as the editor hadn’t made too many alterations!  (And those he made were absolutely spot-on.)  It was kind of the author to get in touch to thank me for it.  To quote myself, the revised paperback edition of The Scots and the Turf, by Alan Yuill Walker, has “a huge amount to interest racing fans regardless of their nationality and it is excellent value at a very reasonable price.”

Racing history can pop up unexpectedly. During a guided walk along the course of the now-underground river Fleet that flows from Hampstead down towards the Thames, our very knowledgeable leader spoke of a racecourse at Kentish Town.  She seemed to think there were still traces of it.  This surprised me, as I’d have placed the racing there circa 1730 and when I got home to look at some old notes they confirmed my understanding.  Perhaps she means Alexandra Park, but while they are both north London they are not next door to each other.  I’ve emailed this to her; I will be intrigued to see what the answer is.  A new defunct racecourse?

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Hats off to my architect chum Neil’s brother, who kindly spent a day going to a university library 20 miles from where he lived in order to wade through the archives to try and throw light on the Salisbury concrete question.  The conundrum is that, according to newspaper reports, a new stand was built in 1898-99.  Neil and an engineer friend are sure the current Tattersalls stand dates from about that time and that it is reinforced concrete – yet, try as we might, we can find no independent written evidence that it was built that way at that time.

The inventor and patent holder, a Monsieur Hennebique, licensed others to use his technology to create new buildings in other countries. A book listing 36,809 such works in the UK between 1897-1917 has no entry for Salisbury racecourse, unless it has been categorised in a very peculiar way.

We need to be absolutely sure that the current stand is as old as I think. We’ve got a 1931 photo of it.  There are others from earlier in the century that may show it, but it’s obscured by objects in the foreground.   So I will need to revisit those early sources and see if there’s another picture where the stand is more visible.  That would strengthen the case for it to be one of the oldest surviving reinforced concrete structures in this country.

At Kempton yesterday, I was reminded over the controversy of a year ago when the Jockey Club announced plans to close the track, sell it for housing and use the proceeds to finance other major projects. Opposition from within racing was considerable and the local authority and residents were even more anti.  I was and still am puzzled by the apparent lack of public access to acres and acres of space formerly used for the Jubilee course, beyond the limit of the currently used track.  It seems to me there is no loss of public amenity if all that green space is off limits.  Houses could be built there and the existing track could be retained.  The whole subject has been dormant for some time but will no doubt flare up again unless the Jockey Club decide to abandon any redevelopment plans.

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I’ve finished the book review for the Racing Post. I reached the stage where I’d got the required number of words and it said what I wanted it to.  However, to paraphrase the old Eric Morecambe and Andre Previn sketch, I wasn’t sure that all my sentences were in the right order.  I’ve shuffled them round and I think they’re OK.  I could carry on tweaking it ad infinitum, but I think it’s time to let the commissioner of the review see it.

Writing Salisbury has continued, while being surrounded by Christmassy distractions such as new books to read and alluring chocolates to resist or eat (in that order). Progress can be halted by any time when the fatal phrase, “Oh, I must just check that,” leaps to mind.  Before long an hour or two has gone, reviewing something I have quite possibly looked at before.  Or getting a fresh idea that I might uncover a fresh story about so-and-so, and not stopping to think whether it will be interesting enough to make the published version.

I’ve even had another bash at the fourth and final box of old Sporting Lifes that have cluttered up the place for over a year. Noting articles relevant to Salisbury, the courses I have written about before, and others of interest takes time.  A determined effort seems to have increased the height of the “done” pile by about three inches, yet the unread pile only seems to have decreased by two.  Eighteen inches of unreads are left, so that’s a lot of rainy days to look forward to.   Surely I will finish them in 2018?

It was good to see the Racing Post do a feature on the top horses of 50 years ago yesterday.  More historical articles, please!  The sport has a terrific heritage and I suspect we don’t make enough of it.

https://www.racingpost.com/news/top-horses-of-2017/he-was-a-great-champion-the-best-flat-horse-trained-in-britain-in-the-1960s/313731

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Continuing to compose the Salisbury text, I feel as if I have covered the first 200 years fairly quickly.  Yet I also know it will take a lot of revision.  There’ll be much more content involved in its more recent history.   There are still gaps that might be plugged by visiting the Chippenham archives again, Newmarket and one or two other places.

A fair amount of the last fortnight has been swallowed up by grappling with my first ever smart phone, which has entailed four visits to the O2 shop in that time. I downloaded my first app the other day; it must have taken three quarters of an hour between decision and completion.

Earlier this week I met an old chum who’s been working on the history of Alexandra Park racecourse for quite a while. I think he has gathered a stupendous amount of information, as a sample page I saw was very fully referenced with footnotes.  That’s a degree of academic thoroughness I choose not to exhibit, in spite of always being told at school to “show your workings!” when in exams involving calculations.  I always used to do so, in the hope that if my answer was wrong, I would get some credit if the workings showed my logic was correct.

I could use footnotes, which certainly add an air of authority to a book. Thinking about my reason for not doing so, it comes down to laziness.  Footnotes must add a lot of extra time to do, and to check and revise each time the body of the text changes.  (They also mean more pages, and therefore more expense when it comes to printing.)  I will see if I can continue not to attract brickbats for this.

Reviewers of some of my early books said they’d be better with an index, and I complied with my later ones.  I’ve been given a book to review for the Racing Post, and while it is very good, I keep wishing it had an index.  If I put that recommendation in my review it wouldn’t exactly be the pot calling the kettle black – would it?

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An obscure question arose this week with Salisbury research, but it wasn’t too obscure for fellow author Tony Byles, who kindly delved into his library to find the answer to it and the supplementary questions I posed.

These were about the Royal Plates, usually four mile races for six-year-olds sponsored by the monarchy. Though the first may have been as early as 1634, it was the fun-loving Charles II that got them going.  Future royals kept them up, so that by 1727 there were eleven of them spread round the country.

Originally they had trophies worth £100 but they moved to cash prizes later. Basically their value was such that the best horses would enter, and with no second or third prize money fields were often small or there would be a walkover.

Their numbers increased in the 18th century and their terms and conditions evolved, but as racing changed to an emphasis on speed instead of stamina, they became anachronistic and the last of them was run in 1887.  Their descendants are the stayers’ Cup races at Ascot, Goodwood, Doncaster and York.

Tony talks about this more fully in his Kindle book of 101 Interesting Facts on the History of Horse Racing, and you can see some of it on Google Books. I know he hadn’t planned to write any more after his book about the ringer who won the 1844 Derby, In Search of Running Rein.  (I see hardback copies of that one are being offered on Amazon for £85 to £503.93.  Plus postage.  Paperback and Kindle versions are rather more reasonably priced.)

He must have found, like I did, that once you start this research plus writing malarkey it’s difficult to stop. Let’s hope he is compiling the Next 101 Interesting Facts on the History of Horse Racing.

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Four weeks on …. goodness knows what happened to the post I scheduled a fortnight ago.

I see a new book about the history of Wincanton races is being launched at the start of their new season on 20 October.  I wish them good luck with it but if, as their website says, it consists of only 60 pages then charging £25 for it is, in my view, ambitious.

The book about Chelmsford races I referred to a while ago deals much more with the old racecourse, paradoxically much nearer the city than the modern incarnation called “Chelmsford City” – which to many of us is still “Great Leighs”, as it was called when it first opened in 2008.  There is much, much more to be told about its origins, oft-delayed inauguration, its closure less than a year later and the behind-the-scenes planning in the intervening years that led to its revival.

I was sorry to see that one of “my” courses, Bath, has been hit by an infestation of a type of beetle that eats grass roots, thereby causing the ground to become dangerously uneven.  They’ve lost a couple of meetings and with their season now over I feel I have neglected them by not going racing there at all this year.  Similarly, I haven’t visited Windsor races this year either.  I hope I can put that right this month.

Congratulations to the boss at Uttoxeter, David MacDonald, who has been elected on to his local council in a neighbouring county.  It’s strangely appropriate, considering the extensive part played by local authorities in the history of his racecourse.   If you’ve read the book you will get my drift.

After a fairly quiet period with regard to Salisbury, due to domestic reasons, I’d allowed myself to think that most of the data-gathering was done, and that I should start reviewing it with a view to starting to actually composing something.  I started reading one of my Word files of Salisbury notes.  I had only got about six lines down page one when I realised there could be untapped material in one of my online sources.  Lo and behold, a search there using different criteria brought up some very useful new material.  And more has emerged since then.  While browsing through my files has allowed me to start on a chronology of the most important dates, to misquote the voiceover at the end of each episode of The Apprentice, “The (re)search goes on.”

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Friends

A holiday precluded much Salisbury work being done this last fortnight.  However, I have arranged to meet a couple of old pals there at one of their forthcoming race meetings.  They haven’t met each other before; I met them separately through my racing history research.

Though a great deal of the work involves picking through archives and online records when I look back I have formed a lot of interesting and varied friendships that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. You don’t need to be bosom buddies or in frequent touch, but you have that certain something in common that means renewing acquaintanceships is relaxed and pleasurable.

Many are people who have worked – or are still working – at the courses I’ve written about, especially those who are keen on racing anyway. They include managers, clerks of the course, weighing room staff and people who on the owners and trainers entrances. Others, not racecourse-based, who work or have worked in the business include commentators, bookmakers, booksellers, jockeys, owners, trainers, councillors, journalists and other writers on the subject. Even an architect, who is one of the pair I’m going to meet at Salisbury to see what he thinks of the old rubbing house there, where horses used to be cleaned up after their racing exertions.

One meets numerous people during research and nearly all go out of their way to be helpful.  Often the degree of helpfulness is an indicator of potential future friendships. So I thank those I spoke to once or twice, for which that was sufficient for both parties; I thank even more another set of people who I know well enough to be able to have a conversation in passing at the races; and I am more grateful still to have known the precious set with whom lasting friendships have formed.  With them I look forward to many more outings and jollity, on and off the course.

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