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Archive for the ‘Uttoxeter’ Category

After the anticipated excitement two weeks ago of the Ffos Las book launch and Daily Express article, damp squib is the phrase that comes to mind.

Hardly anybody was at Ffos Las last Thursday week and the number of sales I made was tiny.  I signed more than I sold.  That was thanks to Tidds, one of the people who have worked there from the start, who had already bought a number of copies to give to different people.  He is one of those invaluable types (in any organisation) who knows where everything is, what happened x years in the past and what has to be done in the latest crisis.

Two of the possible four in-laws kept me company and gave me great moral support.  They really shouldn’t be let loose on a racecourse, though; I found they’d put £2 each way on a 4/11 favourite.  (It finished out of the frame)

There will be more of a push on the book this Thursday, which is close to the true 10th anniversary of the course’s opening.  Though I won’t be there, I hope they will get some local rugby-playing celebrities to sign copies, and endorse it in the other sense too.

The Daily Express feature, which was expected in the aftermath of the Derby, had to be deferred because there was too much Trump and D-Day news for it to be fitted in.  Until when, I don’t know.  I sincerely hope it will be in this week, tied in to Royal Ascot.

The day after Ffos Las, I travelled up to Uttoxeter, to go racing and meet some old friends.  It rained all day but the racegoers, many there for Sausage & Cider Festival (particularly the latter) didn’t seem too bothered.

Weather permitting, I will be back at Salisbury on the 26th trying to sell that book the annual members and the regulars who haven’t yet bought one.

I have nearly finished reading Chris Pitt’s book about Warwick.  It’s a good story and presentationally this book is much livelier than mine.   I’ll say more about it later.

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Book launch days always cause me trepidation as they approach and last Sunday at Salisbury was no exception.  I needn’t have worried.   Bad weather had blown over the day before and the day was dry, and not quite as chilly as feared.  That meant Rupert the bookseller was present, with line of trestle tables selling racing books, pictures, key rings and fridge magnets.  Any racegoer he recognised was assailed with an enquiry as to how many Salisbury books they were going to buy.

The racecourse directors kindly invited me to join them for lunch.  They were very welcoming, genial and chatty, and the food was delicious.  I could get used to that sort of treatment.

There was a productive signing session after race 2.  Another after the fifth was less so, but I rejoined Rupert after the seventh and eighth races (it was a marathon card) to catch potential sales to people who were going home.  After reckoning up at the end of the day we decided sales were very satisfactory.  Once the accounting was complete and I had done all I could to help Rupert pack up (before a squadron of racecourse staff arrived to provide expert assistance), I took some stock back to my car.  An hour and a quarter after the last race, I was on the way home.

I’ll be back at Salisbury on Thursday 16th hoping to sell a few more.  Before then Rupert and I will be at Ascot this Friday and Saturday trying to do the same.  Marketingwise there is still a lot to do.  I handed in a review copy at the Racing Post’s London HQ this week.  I have yet to contact my old book-purchasing customers, but I may leave that until the Ffos Las one is ready.

As it turned out, there were no major issues with the text and it is now with the printer.  I’ve already had a pdf version back.  The main issue is, I think, is the propensity for most racing scenes to be landscape whereas a book will be portrait shaped.  There is always a dilemma about whether to have several images rotated to fill a full page, meaning you have to tilt the book sideways to look at them properly, or to have two small landscape images one above the other on a single page.  Either way, the finishing line is in sight.

I was glad to see that Hayley, one of the people who I worked with on the Uttoxeter book, was elected as a local councillor last week.  Her boss David is one already, and fortunately for the sake of workplace harmony, they both represent the same party.  I’m sure if they can repeat the success of the racecourse in their own local communities, their constituents will be well served.

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Two weeks ago I’d got to the beginning of WW2 with Salisbury, and since then I’ve only moved on to 1942.  Quite a bit was happening then, but that’s also true of things at home.  I have collected an archive of non-racing paraphernalia, contained in about 12 boxes and baskets, and I’ve had to catalogue it to see what should be kept, destroyed, or given to someone else.  The decisions are not solely mine, so that slows things up.  That’s a contrast with racing archives research, where I am the only arbiter of what I look at or ignore.

The diary is fairly clear in the next ten days and I should be able to progress into Salisbury’s peacetime.  Holiday weekends are good for book work.  Traffic and bad weather are good reasons not to go far at Easter.  Come to think of it, traffic and good weather would be even better reasons to stay in and get on with it.

Last time I advised watching out for David Pipe’s runners in the Midlands Grand National, but he had none.  Perhaps he knew how awful the weather would be there.  From the comfort of my armchair I’d describe it as “intermittent sleet blizzards”.  The management did jolly well to get the meeting on and keep it going.  I expect the crowd was a bit down, but as they had virtually sold out in advance I don’t suppose too much damage was done financially.

The 2018 turf flat season began yesterday with the Lincoln Handicap as usual.  Nobody makes any play of the fact that the Brocklesby Stakes, traditionally the first two-year-old race, goes back just as far as the Lincoln.  Both races began in 1849, although the Brocklesby was then a handicap over a mile and a half.  Mind you, the Lincoln started off over two miles.  It came down to its present distance of one mile in 1855.  It wasn’t until the closure of Lincoln racecourse that these races moved to Doncaster to kick off the 1965 season.

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The Beast from the East wasn’t all bad, as dull snow-ridden days meant I had a good excuse to press on with writing Salisbury.  The draft text has reached the beginning of World War 2.  That is a very self-contained part of the course’s history and I have copious notes about it.  Next on my agenda is to aggregate them, eliminate the duplicate stories, watch out for any discrepancies and try and leave the residue making sense.

A planned visit to the English Heritage archives at Swindon proved unnecessary, as the lady I’d liaised with there when making and postponing appointments had the bright idea of extracting the files I wanted.  Photocopying what turned out to be just three pages and posting them to me for a modest fee was very sensible.  Top marks to her.

Meanwhile my non-book work has settled into a routine of providing four pieces of written work every week, adhering to four regular deadlines.  Other irregular tasks and Salisbury fit in around them.  It is strange to see Salisbury so prominent in the news for a completely different reason.

Cheltenham is invariably top of the racing headlines, but I’m afraid the plethora of chat about it so far ahead has gone beyond overkill.  Why there has to be a whole big section about it at the top of the Racing Post website’s news pages three or four weeks in advance I don’t know.  Let’s face it, most of it is speculation.  With certain big stables you don’t know which races they’ll eventually run their horses in until a few days before.  And if horse X has had to be withdrawn from race Y, well, that’s too bad, but unless it’s the reigning Gold Cup winner or Champion Hurdler, is it really that important?  I commend you all to look forward to the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter next Saturday instead and pay particular attention to any David Pipe runners.

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Kentish Town races

The remnant of the Kentish Town racecourse mentioned last time consists of a short piece of footpath next to a pub called The Vine, which used to be the focus of races held in the fields behind it. The path goes between two brick walls – and with a brick extension from the pub or the building on the other side overhead. Then there is another old brick wall facing you when reaching a T-junction of paths. The fields are long gone, by turning left onto College Lane I soon found a housing development promoted, aptly, by The Furlong Collection. A four bedroom house in this quiet enclave was on the market for £1.6m in 2016.

There are any number of “Racecourse Roads” and “Racecourse Avenues” up and down the country commemorating former courses. It’d be interesting to see how many, though collecting all their details would be a dry and arguably pointless exercise. Pubs named after racehorses is another task for the anorak, and it’s becoming easier as more and more close. Or pubs with racing-related names; one I came across in connection with Salisbury research was the Blagrave Arms in Reading. Its connection with the wealthy family of that name has long gone.

I’ve just returned from a few days in Uttoxeter. Even though the weather forecast was unpromising there was a good crowd at the races. The restaurant, as far as I could tell pressing my nose against the glass from outside, looked very busy if not full. They’ve gone from having a couple of big days, the Midlands National and the Summer Plate, to having half a dozen or more. I gather there is still a steady trickle of book sales, so it won’t be going on Amazon for a while.

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I did a Radio Stoke interview last week to tie in with a Uttoxeter race meeting marking its 110th anniversary on the present site.  As a result of that I’ve had one or two enquiries about the book – it’s still only on sale from me and the racecourse, as they haven’t said they want to put it on Amazon yet.

With Salisbury I’m on the verge of starting to write about one of the key episodes in its history. There’s a lot of material to play with from several sources, but quite a few of them feed off each other or come from the same minority of earlier writers.

After coming to a standstill with my scrutiny of the four boxes of Sporting Lifes I took on almost a year ago – getting stuck two thirds of the way through the third one – a blitz in the last fortnight has left me with just one box to go through. These are newspapers from the 1980s and 90s which I’m trawling for information about Salisbury and the courses I’ve written about before.  I still continue to collect stories about them just in case there’s ever a need for a revised edition.

I made my usual last-meeting-of-the-season pilgrimage to Brighton, where conditions were decidedly autumnal and pretty dark mid-afternoon. Earlier in the week I’d been to Windsor for the first time this season.  The day was supposed to be warm but under strangely grey-yellow skies, it wasn’t.  I was sorry to see that the old Jamstick bar had been renamed The Princes Head, and had a sign outside depicting the Prince Regent.  All very incongruous, as he died 36 years before racing started there.  Whoever decided to make that change hadn’t read my book!

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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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A few days in Uttoxeter the week before last gave me a welcome opportunity to revisit the friends I made there, who were so wonderfully helpful to me with my research. It’s five years since I started work on that book and, looking back on it now, it was such fun, and there was an interesting story to tell.  Well, I found it interesting.

Not for the first time, I stayed in Rugeley (the hotels in Uttoxeter are often much more expensive).  Although its greatest fan wouldn’t call it a number one tourist destination, and its four giant cooling towers are visible for miles around, its residents are very close to proper countryside and one of its pluses for me is the drive from there to Uttoxeter.  The twisting and undulating B road, with its views of rural Staffordshire is always very pleasant.

I planned this trip to coincide with a race meeting on a relatively quiet day, which suits me.  The big music nights and festivals they have there continue to pack in the crowds.  They’re not sitting on their laurels, either, and they are formulating plans for more improvements to the facilities.

My two weekly racing columns have become great time-stealers. What effort I can get away with putting into them, versus the time I actually spend thinking about and writing them to try and make them that bit better, are two very different amounts.  Another time drain has been my acquisition three or four months ago of a small share of a horse, particularly in the last fortnight when I have been to see him run twice at far-flung Midlands race tracks.

These are my excuses for not doing too much work on Salisbury in the last two weeks. However, a couple of regular weekly appointments have just come to an end and though they’ll resume in about three months, until then I have extra time to devote to it.  I feel that I am at least halfway through the information-gathering, and as I had mentally set aside 2017 for the research that means I am on target.

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Achievements

I had a very enjoyable break in Uttoxeter a couple of weekends ago.  It hardly seems possible that a year had passed since that book was launched.  It was good to renew contact with some old friends on and off the course.  I remember the book-signing day there last December, when most of the copies I was asked to sign had already been purchased by the annual members.  On this recent trip I was very pleased that the first member of staff I met on the racecourse had a colleague with her who was carrying a copy of the book, which is proving useful for the behind-the-scenes tours on which racegoers can enlist.

While there I was asked to sign more copies to top up their stock.  They’re not resting on their laurels, which is good as it’s the time of year when people buy more books.  Furthermore, I was reassured by David, the top man there, that he really does read this blog.  In response I signed up with Twitter in order to Follow him and congratulate him on his ten years in charge there.  Nowadays ten years in any senior job is a real achievement.

It’s easy to follow someone on Twitter, but quite what I can usefully lead on is another matter.  I’ve never taken the plunge and invested in a smart phone, so I can only tweet from the laptop at home.

I’ve finished the ad hoc work I mentioned last time, a series of articles about the Top 10 Welsh Grand National winners.  I drew a great deal from a book about the race’s history by the south Wales journalist-author-historian Brian Lee.  He’s written around 25 books – that’s some achievement too – mostly about Cardiff or racing, and still turns out regular newspaper columns at the age of 80.  His most recent publication Racing Rogues has a subtitle “The Scams, Scandals and Gambles of Horse Racing in Wales” which explains it perfectly!  Read more about it at http://www.gwales.com/goto/biblio/en/9781902719313/?session_timeout=1

My backlog of handwritten Bromley notes has been typed up, and though I’d like to complete my scrutiny of one particular source of material before putting that course on the back burner, it would require about 10-12 hours of work when I should be concentrating on Salisbury research.  Can I do both for a while?  I have started on the latter, and I expect the pace to pick up in the next few weeks.

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I’ve completed project number 2 in the last fortnight and I’m now waiting and hoping it will appear in print, but that might be any time between next weekend and Christmas.

I enjoyed the hospitality of the Windsor management last week in their Castle Restaurant overlooking the racecourse. It was a kind thank you gesture for writing the book.  The food was amazing, although I could not identify all of the ingredients in the rather exotic dishes I consumed.  So was the weather, with warmth and blue skies more appropriate to midsummer.  Naff though it may be, I took a picture of the dessert as a memento.  No, it’s not going on this blog or any other social media.  Another favourable review of the book has appeared in the Oct-Nov edition of Horse & Countryside.

I made the long trek by rail to Hereford on Thursday to be present for the much-appreciated reopening of the course after four years in mothballs.  (A course with a very long history and no book about it)  I and other rail travellers were disconcerted to come out of the station forty minutes before the first race to find no taxis.  One or two came along, but they had been pre-booked by other people.  After ten minutes a free one appeared, which four of us piled into.  It soon became apparent that many of the roads around the course were gridlocked through sheer volume of people trying to get there.  Our taxi driver took us a back way that avoided the mayhem in the car park.

We got to the main entrance with a quarter of an hour to go, where there were about a hundred people milling round waiting to get in. Brandishing my Brighton member’s badge, which entitles me to free entry to other tracks in the same ownership such as Hereford, I sailed through another gate and instantly bumped into David, my great helper from Uttoxeter, who with his wife was a guest of the management.  Though he was particularly associated with the Staffordshire track, he had also been clerk of the course at Hereford in his time.  It was a wonderful bonus to see them.  With his help I was able to enjoy the comfort of the hospitality marquee and catch up with news from Staffordshire while outside the rest of the unexpectedly huge crowd watched a series of favourites win.

Let’s hope the locals turn out in sufficient numbers for its other fixtures to justify its renaissance.

Post-race plus rush hour traffic meant I missed my homeward train and my connection at Birmingham, and in the end I didn’t get in till after midnight. Fortunately I had a good book with me (not one of mine).  It all made for a memorable day.

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