Thursday, 1 December 2016

Blue Remembered Grandstands

With apologies to a Shropshire Lad…

Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of Folkestone Racecourse, I see it shining plain,
The happy races where I went
And cannot come again.
 
Despite welcoming the happy news of Hereford’s resurrection (next meeting 19th December), I can’t help but mourn the loss of Folkestone Racecourse. The track, which closed four years ago this month, was the only racecourse in Kent and now looks likely to subside under a blanket of housing. Shepway Council is progressing plans for a 12,000-house development called Otterpool Garden Town.

In addition to being the only racecourse within cycling distance of my childhood home, Folkestone was also the subject of my first venture into racing politics – a letter to The Sporting Life, in 1985, defending the track from Tom Kelly, of the Bookmakers Offcourse Licencees Association (Tom-BOLA - no seriously, that's what they called him), who suggested that the course was a drain on the industry’s resources and should be closed with immediate effect.
 
There were more in the industry who would have agreed with him. Throughout the 1980s, The Sporting Life ran a regular column in which racing personalities were asked 20 standard questions, including: Name your least favourite racecourse. Folkestone was the most popular response by quite a long way. Probably because, if you didn’t live in Kent, it was a long way.
 
When John Francome retired from the saddle he reportedly claimed that he wouldn’t miss trailing around the four ‘F’s: Folkestone, Fakenham, Fontwell Park and F***ing Plumpton! All of which, incidentally, would have found their way on to my list of tracks-for-special-preservation – which might also have been extended to include Fab Ludlow, Fruitful Catterick, Friendly Kelso and Family-fun-filled-Cartmel.
 
For those that have never been to Folkestone Racecourse, I’d like to argue that it isn’t quite so God-forsaken as some might suggest. In fact it was once a venue which benefited from significant royal patronage. During the twelfth century, Westenhanger Castle, which lies adjacent to the parade ring, was a trysting place for Henry II and his mistress ‘Fair’ Rosamund Clifford. Elizabeth I was a frequent visitor and made the castle a command post for 14,000 of her troops - gathered to defend the south coast from the Spanish Armada.
 
Perhaps the biggest opportunity, to change the course of history at Folkestone Racecourse, came during the English Interregnum when Charles II was invited to return from the continent. A plot was hatched to bring him secretly to Folkestone Racecourse (or Westenhanger Castle as it was then) from where he would make his procession to London. In fact the plotters planned to murder him before he reached London, but Charles was warned and the trip was postponed.
 
But let’s pretend for a moment that Charles had made his fateful journey and survived the assassination attempt. Surely the King would have rewarded the region with his continued patronage; in place of convening racing parties at Newmarket, his court would have descended on Folkestone instead – where they would now be preparing for the three hundred and forty-seventh year of the race he initiated - the (Newmarket / Folkestone) Town Plate.
 
This week’s selection: I'm backingthe James Moffatt trained Highland Lodge to retain his Becher Chase crown at Aintree on Saturday.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

And the Winner Isn't ...

Apologies for returning to the subject of the Racecourse Association’s Showcase Awards – but it isn’t every year that we win a major award from our national trade association. In fact it’s only every other year, based on the three years since 2014 - but I’m starting to boast again ...
 
And while the whole team is proud that Cartmel received the accolade of Ground-staff of the Year, we know what it feels like to be runners-up too – having been shortlisted twice previously for the jumps category of the awards. It can feel pretty rubbish to dress up like a penguin for a big ceremony, have all the excitement of making the shortlist, and then remain seated for the duration of the event while others scoop all the awards. In some cases the difference between winning and losing must be so infinitesimally small as to appear quite unfair – so today I’m name-checking a few of the racecourse champions that should have won an award but didn’t.
 
If there’d been a ‘party animal’ award, for the liveliest racecourse – or the one that got reprimanded the most times on the dance floor – it would surely have belonged to Hamilton Park. It’s no wonder that their entry for the ‘events’ category was based on a festival of music and racing involving eight different bands over an eleven hour period. I just wonder how many of the Hamilton Park staff were moved on by security stewards at their own event.
 
The ‘putting yourselves about’ award for top-networking goes to Redcar who, despite sending just two delegates to the Showcase event, seem to have spoken to every single one of the 270 people in the hall during the speed-dating phase of the conference, held during the afternoon. Incidentally, the purpose of the speed-dating section was to exchange ideas; no weddings (or divorces) are expected.
 
Without taking anything away from Ascot Racecourse, who became the first track to reclaim the accolade of overall Showcase Champion, we should perhaps feel slightly sorry for Musselburgh – who surely came closer than any other small racecourse to winning the whole thing. Having been trumped by Ascot in the categories for ‘social media excellence’ and ‘operational excellence’, they scooped the award for ‘best event’. Apparently their advertising strapline for 2017 will be "Ever-so nearly as good as Ascot – but in a nicer part of the British Isles".
 
It would be sacrilegious to suggest that anyone other than Seamus Buckley, the Clerk of the Course at Goodwood, deserved to lift the Neil Wyatt Lifetime Achievement Award – he was the only winner during the evening to be accorded a standing ovation on his way to the presentation podium. However, I think it might be worth reminding the judges ahead of next year’s event that a common factor links the two most recent winners of the overall Ground-staff Award: York and Cartmel.

A certain terrier called Jack regularly oversees operations at both racecourses – occasionally accompanied by his chauffeur, Anthea Morshead (who apparently also calls herself a Clerk of the Course). For the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award (he can't be more than 10 years old) – vote Jack!
 
Looking ahead to the weekend, I fully expect Zubayr to be picking up the prize for ‘best hurdler’ in the 2.40 at award winning Newbury Racecourse.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Craving the Rose

I’ve previously described the Racecourse Association’s Showcase Awards, which take place on Thursday evening, as being a bit like the Oscars. It’s probably more accurate to compare them to Chelsea Flower Show – because running a racecourse is a lot like gardening.

Here at Cartmel, we spend the Winter months germinating our ideas and planning our displays. Like young seedlings, some projects develop stronger shoots than others as we nurture them throughout the Spring. And then, as the Summer season approaches, we keep our fingers crossed that all our plans will come together, while praying that the whole blooming show doesn’t get spoilt by the rain.
 
Most racecourses have their share of hardy perennials - races or events which attract an admiring audience year after year. Some events are bigger than others, but even at the highest level, the perennials need care and attention – the Cheltenham Festival has been lifted and divided to create four days, while the Epsom Derby Meeting has been pruned to create two days of concentrated quality. Some events have been transplanted – Champions Day to Ascot; Saints & Sinners from Hamilton Park to Ayr – and back again.
 
And then there are the cuttings: snippets taken from one racecourse which are propagated in the hot-house and distributed across multiple sites. Ladies Days, for example, are now as common as petunias – without being any less cheerful.  
 
For every seed sown by racecourse management teams, there’ll be a thousand more that blow in from outside – parties of racegoers with their own agendas: smart dress, fancy dress, picnics in the car park, dances by the bandstand or singing in the bar. The perfect race-day allows space for all of these wild-flowers to co-exist in a concert of colour and to continue growing organically for years to come. 
 
One of the best things about British racing is that no two racecourses are the same: different climates, different topography, different outlooks. It’s no wonder that, when submitting our show-gardens to the RCA for judging, there is so much variety. The award categories recognise excellence in various disciplines, from community engagement and catering to marketing and logistics. At Cartmel, we’ve been fortunate enough to be shortlisted in the categories for ground-maintenance and special events. 
 
There isn’t an award for the top racecourse tipster, which is a shame because we’ve enjoyed an exceedingly fortunate year. There's always a risk that this weekend’s selection, Upsilon Bleu, who is due to make the lengthy journey down from Northumberland to Ascot on Saturday, won’t improve our record further – we can't get it right all the time. 
 
But as Anne Bronte observed: He that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose.

 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Coming Up Trumps

To use a word invented by George W Bush, we "misunderestimated" him. How else do you explain the election of Donald Trump as the leader of the Free World?
 
When I woke up on Wednesday morning I was pretty much lost for words, so I turned to the dictionary for inspiration. The word ‘trump’ has a variety of definitions. As a verb, it can be used to describe the act of audibly breaking wind – in the sense intended by the Monty Python team when they wrote: "I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction." Which, I think, is what Angela Merkel was trying to say when asked for her response to the election result.
 
I’m not sure whether Donald Trump’s mother was a hamster or whether his father smelt of elderberries – but the President Elect did ‘outrank and defeat someone in a highly public way’, which is one of the more traditional definitions given by my dictionary.
 
In decades past, the phrase "He’s a trump!" was used to describe a helpful or admirable person. Only time will tell whether that meaning will return to common parlance, or whether the phrase will evolve to mean something else entirely. If I’m honest, my mood this morning was on the negative side: the Americans have voted for a looney, the Russians are delighted, ISIS are plotting wildly and global warming is going to kill us all. Mrs Garratt says I’ll be feeling much better after I’ve returned from the dentist this afternoon.
 
That’s one of the good things about being married – there’s always someone there to give you a bit of perspective. If you’re not already married and fancy organising a wedding for yourself, you could do worse than head down to Holker Hall where they’re staging a wedding fair in the Ilex Restaurant on Sunday between 11am and 3pm. There’ll be trade-stands to help you find the perfect flowers, food and favours – although I’m pretty sure that you have to bring your own bride or groom.
 
I don’t know how I’ll feel after visiting the dentist, but I bet I’ll feel much better if I can back the winner of the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday. If the world is going to pot, I might just as well take all the money in my betting account (all £14.26) and stash it on something at a decent price so that can we can have a big party. As De Mee, part owned by Dame Judi Dench, is the one to come up trumps.
 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Swallows, Amazons and the Pirates of Cartmel

Having been happily occupied by racing at Cartmel in August this year, I missed the release of the new Swallows and Amazons movie, set just a few miles up the road on Coniston Water.

Arthur Ransome’s book, published in 1930, was a childhood favourite of mine, so it was slightly disconcerting to find that the plot had been sexed-up for modern viewers. The children’s uncle, a curmudgeonly author in the novel, has become a member of the secret service – protecting a sheaf of top secret documents from a pair of dastardly Russian spies. Where once there were mock battles between child-pirates, now there are all-action chase scenes involving grown-ups and seaplanes.

And while introducing a whole swath of new action, the producers have also acknowledged the lost innocence of our time by changing the name of one of the central characters, from Able Seaman ‘Titty’, to Able Seaman ‘Tatty’. Personally, I can’t see a problem with the original name. But then I’d also have advised the publishers of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree stories to retain the names Dick and Fannie instead of re-christening them Rick and Frannie – I guess it depends on your frames of reference.

Despite the changes, Swallows and Amazons is still a good film – like many aspects of modern life, it’s different, it’s faster paced, it’s not necessarily better - but it’s not necessarily worse either. Being set in the Lake District, it’s also proved demonstrably beneficial to the tourism industry, which is why I’ve started work on writing a sequel that I hope might commence filming next year. The title given to Ransome’s own sequel, Coot Club, could prove contentious, so I’m playing it safe and I’ve given it the working title Pirates of the Cartmel Peninsula.

In the opening scene, the children will receive a telegram from their absent father reading: "Better drowned than duffers. If old enough to drown, they’re old enough to gamble." At which point the children will sell their sailing boats in order to fund a massive betting coup, at the traditional Whit Bank Holiday race-meeting, at Cartmel. The plot bears some resemblance to the real life gamble involving a gelding called Gay Future, although the horse will obviously be renamed to avoid further innuendo.
 
We might pick the name of another real life racehorse – like the promising young novice chaser Rolling Thunder, who happens to be our selection this weekend – in the 1.10pm at Kelso on Saturday (also at Carlisle on Monday).
 
The film will conclude with a dramatic court room scene - although I’ve yet to decide whether it’ll be the children in the dock for perpetrating a gambling fraud, whilst being underage for betting purposes, or the parents for wilful neglect of their children.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Half Term Sport

I’ve never really subscribed to the Tony McCoy, win-at-all-costs, approach to sport. According to my bookmaker, it’s the reason why I’m such a good punter. As each loser passes the post, I’m able to tear up my ticket with a gallic shrug of the shoulders and tell myself that it’s the taking part that counts.
 
And I’ve been taking part in a lot of sport this week because it is the half-term school holiday. I should make it clear, at this stage, that I left school some time ago – but my daughter hasn’t and so I used this short Autumn holiday to take some time off and reacquaint myself with several sports which I haven’t experienced in two or three decades.
 
Whoever said that you never forget how to ride a bike is quite wrong. I seem to remember, at the age of eight, riding a bike without having to use my hands. But this week I struggled to steer the damn thing at all, never mind while speeding nonchalantly downhill with my arms crossed. It wasn’t very Chris Froome – although I’d like to see him win a Tour De France with a tag-along children’s bike bolted on to the rear of his back wheel.
 
Next came the swimming which was superbly uncompetitive – no one is too bothered about winning races when they’re bobbing up and down in front of a wave-machine.
 
It turned out that I was pretty good at archery – I almost hit the target once. It might not sound like much of an achievement, but by the time you’ve made your own bow and arrows, cut from a nearby hedgerow, you’re quite pleased if the arrows fly further than the end of your toes.
 
The real competition started when we met up with some of my daughter’s cousins for a spot of croquet. There is a common misconception that croquet is a sedate game played by gentlemen. It isn’t. Croquet is an evil game, the object of which is less about winning and more about smashing your opponent’s ball to the four corners of the lawn or, even better, to make their ball hit the central post – which means that they have to return to the start line. It’s easy to cause offence in a game of croquet; I don’t think we’ll be invited back in a hurry.
 
Just as I didn’t expect to win the game of croquet, it’s true that I don’t really expect every horse that I back to win its race. So it’s doubly exciting when I inadvertently pick a winner – and the feeling is quadrupled when the horse is an old friend like Menorah, my selection for the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on Saturday. With horses as wonderful as Menorah – that have run in the best races year after year – it doesn’t really matter if they find one too good on the day, as long as we enjoy watching them run. If he completes safely but doesn’t win, it will have been a good race. If he wins, it will be an even better one.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Bookies Bashed as Punters Weep in the Streets

Cor, wot a scorcher! The bookies are being asked for tens of millions of pounds, but there are punters weeping in the streets... What’s going on? The Sun might ask.

The gods of sport took aim at horseracing this week and unleashed both barrels – as two seismic events rocked the racing world. First, The Times newspaper announced that it had seen a letter, from the Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch, asking bookmakers for their thoughts on paying racing a 10% share of gross profits on horserace betting.
 
Then came the second blast, inevitable one day I suppose: The Sun newspaper heralded the retirement of Claude Duval, the Punters’ Pal.
 
The 71 year old racing journalist from Cranbrook in Kent (42: 52: 32) – I made up the vital statistics, which is something Claude would NEVER do – has been a fixture at The Sun since the tabloid edition first hit the streets in November 1969. The front-page headline was: 'Horse Dope Sensation!' In fact Claude was the only remaining member of the reporting team that published that first tabloid edition, although The Sun had enjoyed an even earlier life as a broadsheet since 1964.

Claude Duval became the Horserace Writers Association’s Journalist of the Year in 1998 and published biographies of Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery, Willie Carson and Tony McCoy. But his greatest moment arguably came following the disqualification of Royal Gait from the Ascot Gold Cup in 1988. Prior to the subsequent Jockey Club hearing, Claude wrote "If Royal Gait doesn’t get the race I’ll streak round Portman Square…" But Royal Gait was not awarded the race and Claude Duval achieved the sort of photo by-line which would still be considered unusual today.
 
Throughout Claude’s near 50-year tenure, the racing industry has been engaged in a never-ending negotiation with bookmakers over the amount of money that should be paid for their main product, a proportion of the profits left behind by punters in the bookmakers’ satchels. After more than 50 years of the Horserace Betting Levy, Tracey Crouch’s letter suggested that we might be nearing a settlement.
 
A charge of 10% of gross profits, levied on digital platforms as well as high-street betting shops, would represent an increase of more than £30 million for racing, which has seen levy revenue plummet from around £100 million, to less than £55 million, in the last ten years.
 
It is estimated that the new scheme, which would include relief for smaller betting firms, could cost Ladbrokes and Corals an extra £5 million. While we shouldn’t assume that they’ll be pleased at the prospect, the proposal offers the merging bookmakers a degree of certainty and a level playing field with other, digitally-led, betting organisations. The price looks cheap when compared against the discount applied to their joint shop dispersal, engineered to smooth their merger through competition concerns, of 359 shops at the knock down price of just £55.5 million.
 
A spokesman for DCMS was keen to point out that no rate has been agreed for the replacement levy scheme. A spokesman for The Sun refused to confirm whether the Punters' Pal would endorse our selection for this weekend – Urban Hymn at Kelso, 2.35pm on Saturday. 

... and for Claude Duval's own account of his time at The Sun, go to: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/horseracing/1982048/the-punters-pal-signs-off/