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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.

Albums to go

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!

John Powney

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.

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.

To Salisbury this week for my first proper meeting with Jeremy, the clerk of the course and in essence the general manager.  I gleaned quite a bit of fresh information, and the icing on the cake was the “history file” he has accumulated during his tenure, containing an assortment of cuttings, articles and, best of all, old photos.  I’m looking forward to browsing through that.  I was given a tour of the racecourse buildings, many of which are undergoing refurbishment in time for their first meeting on 30 April.  One that wasn’t is the old rubbing house.  We’re not sure when that dates from, but it’s visible on a 1773 map.

What with the tour and meeting Jeremy and other racecourse staff, I feel a bit more at home with the place now.

Driving there a different way from my usual route I found much to admire in the quiet side roads that undulate through the pleasing countryside round about.  The racecourse itself is on the top of a ridge three miles out of town, and on a fine day, as it was when I was there, being able to look down on Salisbury and the famous cathedral spire gives you one of those all’s-well-with-the-world moments.  The pub lunch didn’t do any harm, either. Reminded that it was National Pie Week, I did my bit to support the cause.

I like to go to Sandown for one or other of its two annual military meetings and did so on Friday.  These fixtures have their own special character, thanks to two of the races being confined to past or present military personnel.  The main event was the Grand Military Gold Cup, first run in 1841.  This was won by Captain Guy Disney, who followed up on his win here last month, which was the first time a jockey with a prosthetic leg had won a race.  However, before the first race I had been impressed with Major Domenico d’Alo, who not only removed his helmet when greeting connections in the parade ring but also bowed fractionally as if to kiss the ladies’ hands.  Yes, he was an Italian.  He held back when he realised from the body language that a gentle handshake and the now-conventional embrace were all that was expected.  He hadn’t ridden in this country before, but I’d done a bit of research earlier that revealed he’d taken part in 140 races at home, and was therefore more experienced than some of our own riders.  My small investment on him proved worthwhile when after the last hurdle he crouched low in the saddle and swung his whip swiftly and rhythmically – albeit in a style of his own – to galvanise his mount to a three length win.  His delight will have been augmented when the band struck up the Italian national anthem as he made his way to the winner’s enclosure.

Rubbing along

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?

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/