Horse Racing and me …

“To spend our days betting on three-legged horses with beautiful names” — Bohumil Hrabal

I was born within a stones throw of the Knavesmire*, home of York racecourse – one of the country’s finest flat courses. As a nipper, my dad, and sometimes my grandad would often take me for walks around the vast expanse of green grass and along the miles of seemingly never ending straight white rails.

Once or twice, our walks would coincide with a race day and we would stand near to the old Tyburn – the site of the gallows where Dick Turpin and hundreds of others met their demise at the end of the hangman’s rope – and watch the exhilarating scene of horses and their jockey’s breaking from the stalls, at what I now know to be the 1m6f start.

Despite this early introduction to the world of horse racing, all though my school and college life I never really had more than a passing interest in the sport, and would generally only really pay anything resembling attention on Grand National day, and perhaps when the Epsom Derby got a few column inches or a segment on the news.

In fact, I left it until the last year of my teens until I struck my very first bet on the horses. I can remember it vividly. It was in a Ladbrokes shop on Percy Street in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where I was at University. One October afternoon, a friend and I had a bit of time to kill before meeting some friends for some beers to celebrate my 19th birthday, so on our way to the pub, we went into the bookies.

I can’t remember the actual reasons why we went into the shop that day, it wasn’t raining, and my friend wasn’t really a gambler. I also can’t remember why we decided to both have £5 on Red Guard in the 3.50 at Fontwell, but we did, and Red Guard, trained by Josh Gifford and ridden by Philip Hide …. won by a length at 7/2.

The die was cast.

Red Guard had piqued my interest and as the months and years passed, I started to, slowly but surely, get more and more interested in horse racing, finding myself buying the Racing Post, attending race meetings, reading around the subject and trying to select horses based on more than just nice silks and good names (a tactic though, which nevertheless, seems to work exceptionally well for my wife whenever she comes racing with me).

Which sort of leads me, in a roundabout way, to the here and now, an avid horse racing fan, writing this nonsense on the internet. It’s now over two decades ago since Red Guard did the business at Fontwell and I’m still trying to select horses based on more than just nice silks and good names, but as the saying goes;

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”

*This almost sounds like the opening of Disco 2000 by Pulp. Unintentionally, I should add.

My favourite racing tracks

A day at the races is one of my favourite things to do in the whole wide world. The form study beforehand, the walk to the track, finding a good bar, standing at the parade ring, being appalled at sockless youths, striking a few bets, slowly hearing the hoof beats as the horses run towards you, paying £10 for a burger and a slice of cheese, your Racing Post becoming crumpled beyond use between race 2 and 3 etc etc etc.

I’ve got an ambition to do them all in a single calendar year, but until then, here is my list – in order of preference – of all the ones I’ve been to so far. It should be said that I like them all, so courses towards the bottom aren’t rubbish, they’re just me least favourite. The order also changes extremely reguarly.

  1. York – My local track and one of the best in the country in my very humble opinion. Superb facilities, great racing and walkable into the city for excellent beer. The Dante festival is one of the highlights of my year.
  2. Newmarket (Rowley Mile) – I know the views aren’t amazing but for me, being at the home of horse racing is magical. Love it. And every course should have an Adnams bar.
  3. Cheltenham – Not much else needs to be said really; Cheltenham.
  4. Hexham – Perhaps a shock that this is so high but I love Northumberland and this is probably the most picturesque course of the lot. A different world from Cheltenham, but charming because of it.
  5. Aintree – I wouldn’t go on Grand National day again but there’s little to dislike at Aintree.
  6. Newmarket (July) – Like the Rowley, the views aren’t great but can think of few better places to be on a summer afternoon (unless there’s a music night on).
  7. Sandown – Only been once but was impressed. Some great racing, good facilities and I like the wall that’s at the way to and from the parade ring.
  8. Kelso – I like Kelso for many of the same reasons I like Hexham. Northern, not huge, picturesque. Once got absolutely (and accidentally) smashed on Aspall’s cider there and hugged a stranger when winning the lucky last. Happy days.
  9. Ripon – Just lovely. Green and friendly and in a nice town with some good pubs.
  10. Hamilton– Despite being hugely underdressed and not as drunk as 98% of the patrons, we had a great time at the track. Stayed in the hotel right next door. Great stuff.
  11. Salisbury – Similar to Ripon. Always know it’s a good course when you don’t have any winners but still have a great day.
  12. Catterick – Good old Catterick. Another one which is a bit of a pain to get to on public transport, but once your there there’s not much to dislike. Small, but perfectly formed. Great value hospitiality.
  13. Doncaster – Has got it all and would be much higher if it wasn’t in, you know, Doncaster.
  14. Beverley – Another local track to me and one where I love to go. I would generally avoid at the weekend when Hull’s finest come to town, but had some great days there during the week or at quieter meetings.
  15. Wetherby – The third closest course to my home. A great place to visit on Boxing Day and the Charlie Hall is another yearly highlight of mine. Plenty to like about it although the location is driving is pretty much the only way of getting there.
  16. Pontefract – Very pleasant. Some good action on a Friday evening and home of the longest flat handicap in Europe.
  17. Market Rasen – An absolute bugger to get to but worth it. Really friendly track and close to Lincoln which is great for a weekend’s stay
  18. Haydock – Been 3 or 4 times to Haydock and always had a good day. No good pubs anywhere near the course though.
  19. Southwell – Huge soft spot for Costa Del Rolleston. The Saracen’s Head in the town itself is great, it’s close to Newark which is a fabulous litte town and who can’t fail to love a 5f sprint where the horses run in slow motion?
  20. Newcastle – Brilliant city, very decent course. Had some great days up there and some better nights, too.
  21. Uttoxeter – Popular midlands track, who host some very decent racing. The Sunday that I visited, it was absolutely packed and there were a few too many sockless gelboys for it to be a National Hunt course. The Horse and Dove micropub in the town is excellent.
  22. Musselburgh – I’ve only visited once and I enjoyed it. The end.
  23. Ayr – Very Scottish. Accidentally gave a £10.80 tip to a waiter here.
  24. Clonmel – My first and only Irish course. Did a great pint of Bulmers. Found a STUNNING pub in the town called Phil Carrolls Bar.
  25. Thirsk – Got a feeling it should be higher. Nice little town and had some great wins there.
  26. Wolverhampton – The course is better than the town. Reliable.
  27. Nottingham – I’m advised by a friend and good judge that this should be higher. It probably should to be fair, but thems the breaks.
  28. Carlisle – Always great to visit after you’ve bagged a Wainwright or two (fell and pint).
  29. Sedgefield – Very northern, very national hunty. Once went to a ‘family fun day’ there. Took my 4 year old boy. The family fun literally consisted of an elderly magician sat in the corner of the bar making balloon animals. Tremendous.
  30. Redcar – Once got a 2/9 jolly turned over with a 25/1 shot. Thought I was the king of the paddock. I wasn’t. Nice for a walk down the beach. Always enjoy the 2yo trophy.
  31. Leicester – Perfectly, perfectly fine. Saw Bristol De Mai hack up one Christmas whilst availing myself of some excellent champagne.