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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/

Beyond Suspicion

I’ve had a few more ad hoc enquiries from people doing their family or local history reserarch this month. One of them to do with Brighton was particularly satisfying.  The question was about a picture of a horse called Suspicion, ridden by Gordon Richards, after winning a race there.  They were trying to establish the date; was it the 1950s, perhaps?

A quick search indicated a definitive answer wasn’t going to be easily obtained, and I spent longer on it than I’d anticipated, having found this horse running at Brighton in 1936 aged eleven. Form books were then scrutinised in reverse order to reveal this mare had run about a dozen times every year over ten seasons, winning 25 races altogether.  Five of them were at Brighton with Richards on board, between 1931 and 1935.  I wound up sending details of all her wins to the enquirer, with my surmise that her owner was related to a family well-known in racing today.  They were very pleased to have so much information.

It made me wonder how many other forgotten favourites like Suspicion there must be; not top class horses, but popular for winning more than their share during their careers, their names now languishing undiscovered in the pages of dusty old books of racing results. My research helps me come across some relatively conspicuous course specialists like St Athans Lad and Certain Justice at Fontwell whose exploits were noticed in newspaper articles, but what about those old-timers whose victories were spread across a number of tracks, or who weren’t big names?  Suspicion won nine times at Brighton in all, but I never came across her when researching my book.

Over the last few years I’ve occasionally supplied a regional newspaper column with weekly racing articles, providing holiday cover for their normal author. Now I’ve been asked to supply them on a regular basis, which is very nice.  It was great when retirement meant I no longer had a string of day-to-day work deadlines to worry about any more, so is it perverse that I welcome having a new bit of routine like this?

The Fallen Idol

The furore about the Jockey Club’s plan to make Kempton the next defunct racecourse by selling it for housing arises from the shock value of the announcement, compounded by the fact that it was made heedless of the attitude of Spelthorne, the local authority. How could the Club be unaware of the Council’s strongly-held view that there should be no development?

The Jockey Club was a self-perpetuating oligarchy that ruled racing for well over 200 years, with a series of Lords and Sirs not wanting to rock the boat. For much of the 20th century they often appeared behind the times, while innovations such as starting stalls came in years after they did in other racing countries.  However, this changed in the 1990s when a group of progressive, forward-looking senior stewards willingly gave up many of their functions to a new body, the British Horseracing Board, which later became the BHA (British Horseracing Authority).

This was an inspired move in terms of the Club’s reputation, for all the eyecatching day-to-day controversies like peculiar verdicts in stewards’ enquiries and hoo-hah about the whip rules were no longer their province.  Furthermore, the Club had left themselves with valuable physical assets in the form of racecourses and the vast Newmarket gallops.  Gradually the old jokes died out and instead the BHA became the target for the criticism they used to suffer.   The Club’s main focus became the management of over a dozen tracks by their Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR) arm.

Building on the Kempton estate must have been in JCR’s mind ever since the all-weather track was laid down in 2006. Originally the National Hunt course was going to be dug up, but industry pressure persuaded them to retain it and discontinue flat racing on turf.  The outcome was that a large part of the estate, including the Jubilee course that extends most of the way to Hampton alongside the A308, lies unused.  I stand to be corrected, but I believe there are no footpaths traversing this area and therefore no public benefit from it other than it is not concreted over!  So there is, in theory, plenty of space that could be used to build houses and keep the existing track.  Perhaps final judgement about the development should be suspended until we know more about the numbers to see how persuasive the purely financial case is – or understand better why JCR need to start selling the family silver.

That said, JCR and the Jockey Club have taken a terrible fall from grace by going public about this oblivious of Spelthorne’s inevitable reaction. In the last ten years or so they have done really well, developing the image of a competent outfit, emphasising the Club’s long history and desire to work in the best interests of racing.  Most recently the rebuilding of the Cheltenham enclosures has been regarded as a great success.  But expressing the desire to close Kempton, a busy and successful racecourse, flies in the face of this and damages their newly-won reputation in a way that may take years to repair.

It’s more than 25 years since I first started researching. My target then was defunct racecourses.  I planned to list them all and maybe write a book on what was, surely, a unique subject in which nobody else had done any work.  As I dug further into it, and spent increasing amounts of time in libraries all round the country – and going racing at hitherto-distant courses and gradually ticking them all off, collecting the set in 2001 – it became apparent there were hundreds and hundreds of places were racing used to take place.  After three or four years word reached me that somebody else was writing a book on the same subject, and he was well ahead of me.  This turned out to be Chris Pitt, whose A Long Time Gone has become the definitive work on racecourses closed in the 20th century, a very sensible sub-group on which to concentrate.

Thwarted in my quest, but still keen to find out more about old courses, I turned my attention to a local defunct track, Croydon, which closed in 1890 and was therefore outside the scope of Chris’s opus.  Encouraged by a kind reception to the little book I wrote about that course, I transferred my attention to Brighton and then to other “live” courses.  However, I know of two other researchers with more stamina than me who have worked assiduously for many years on the theme of all defunct courses.  One of them, John Slusar, developed a website with information about these old tracks; its name, greyhoundderby.com, suggests horses weren’t his initial interest.  He has now created four publications from the material he has accumulated.  The courses are grouped geographically – England south of Hatfield, England north of it, Scotland & Wales, and Ireland – in order to make four manageable-sized books under the general title Racecourses: Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.  Read more about the 1,600 courses he has discovered and order the books via  http://greyhoundderby.com/Racecourses%20Here%20Today%20and%20Gone%20Tomorrow.html

I’ve ordered them as a birthday present from my wife to me, which means I’m not allowed to look at them until the fateful day in a few months time.

Twittering

Only having signed up to Twitter a few weeks ago, I don’t suppose I’m the first to observe its ability to become a great time-waster.  I can’t help scrolling down looking at stuff that may only be of tangential interest – but there’s always the compulsion to look at the next tweet, or see what’s going on with other tweetsters.  I wasted a lot of time wondering why I couldn’t send someone a message before realising they had to follow me as well as vice versa.

Nevertheless credit to fellow researcher @charliepoteen for suggesting I tweet my blog, if that’s a legitimate phrase.  I do so partly to find out what I’m missing, and also to help increase the potential audience for my books.  Early indications are that the number of blog views has increased.

One of my first tweets was a blurry photo of four heavy, large cardboard boxes full of old copies of The Sporting Life cluttering up my hallway as an example of Research.  They were kindly donated by Simon Holt, top man, top commentator and top provider of Foreword to my Brighton book.  A few racegoers leaving Fontwell the other day will have seen the transfer between his car boot and mine of these rare yet probably unsellable documents, most of which date from the mid-1990s.  I’m going through each newspaper to see if I can spot anything interesting about Salisbury or all the old courses I’ve written about – or indeed any other subject that takes my fancy.  You might think it pointless to look for material about the courses I’ve already written about, but I cannot stop myself from wanting to discover more about their history.

It is incredibly laborious, though. Each newspaper is folded in half and it takes roughly an hour to reduce the thickness of the pile by an inch.

The feature of last week was a visit to the best racing library in the country, if not the world, where the fruits of others’ research about early racing at Salisbury were generously made available to me.  More digging, closer to home, next time.