When W.B. Yeats imagined his ideal society, an aristocratic world where poets would be celebrated, and surrounded by ‘hearers and hearteners of the work’, the one place where it could be glimpsed was the racecourse: ‘There, where the course is,’ he wrote in ‘At Galway Races’, ‘delight makes all of the one mind.’ A peculiarly Irish vision maybe, with a racecourse seemingly around every bend in Ireland, but it holds true to an extent in this country, too. Here the racecourse is still the place of entertainment and work for all classes, although the extent to which they are all of the one mind is questionable. Certainly a sizeable chunk of the crowd, the gentlemen with the big satchels, and all their attendant helpers, are intent on relieving the rest of as much of their disposable income as they can. The punters are just as determined to make the cash flow in the other direction, but the odds are, literally, against them.
Yeats was a literary man and probably did not begin to grasp the mechanics of betting, although his compatriot Joyce undoubtedly did when he introduced the long odds-against Ascot Gold Cup-winner Throw-away right at the heart of the Holy Grail theme in Ulysses. Yeats, on the other hand, may have been closer in spirit to a friend of mine who, in a poem about the Grand National which Foinavon won at 100/1, had the bookmakers going home in tears at such a big-priced winner, not realising that horses only run at big prices because no one backed them.
Bookmakers may generally be known as ‘the enemy’, but that they are fondly regarded is attested by their being called ‘bookies’, the OED noting that the -ie suffix signifies affection. The presence of the bookies, each with his mush (umbrella), hod (bag) and flash (board), his ‘workmen’ and tic-tacs, is what makes British and Irish racecourses so much fun; and their absence what makes going to the races in the USA and France, where there is only totalisator betting, such a dreary experience. The more fun, the more danger, however, and it may well be that the strength of bookmaking is the greatest threat which faces the British racecourse. For, instead of the courses benefiting from the profits which accrue from tote betting, as the tracks in America and Hong Kong do, in Britain and Ireland the great majority of the money wagered is lost to racing. As a consequence, prize money is kept low, so the best horses are more and more likely to be bred and to race overseas; and, compared with the rest of the world’s, facilities at British courses are poor. It costs me three or four dollars to go racing in the USA; here it may cost £20.
Like English Studies, racing is usually in crisis, but always survives – minus a racecourse or two. Chris Pitt’s A Long Time Gone[*] charts in loving detail the history of the courses which have closed over the last hundred years. Keele Park, which flourished between 1895 and 1906, is now the site of Keele services on the M6. Manchester, a much more substantial course, running races with prize money of up to £1750 in 1902, closed in 1961, its members’ stand now forming the reception building of Salford University. The next year, Hurst Park closed: a lovely, hospitable course on the banks of the Thames, not far from Hampton Park; where its winning post was, there is now a supermarket.
In America such losses would hardly matter, since all their tracks are roughly the same, monotonous sand or dirt-covered ovals. Breeders have not yet cracked it, but because American courses are so much ‘on the turn’ the ideal thoroughbred there would be one whose nearside legs are a couple of inches shorter than the offside ones. In contrast, every British and Irish course is unique, hence the ‘horses for courses’ cliché. A horse which ‘acts’ on the twists and turns of Brighton or Chester is unlikely to reproduce its form on a galloping track like Newmarket. A stiff National Hunt course like Towcester, with its long uphill finish, will suit a big, strong stayer, while tight little Bangor-on-Dee is made for a speedy frontrunner whose stamina is in doubt. As for Epsom, the home of the Derby, with its weird undulations, the formidable Tattenham Corner (a French jockey, not so long ago, kept going straight when the rest of the field made the turn), and the perverse camber all the way up the finishing straight, it is the ultimate test of the outstanding thoroughbred of his generation, or some would say, a course for equine acrobats. It is typical of British racing that its two best-known races, the Derby and the Grand National, should be run over courses whose prospects for survival are not at all rosy. If a big course goes, it will probably be one of these two. More likely, though, is the demise of one or more of the little courses, the ‘gaffs’.
My own lost course was the best of the gaffs, Alexandra Park. As a student in London in the Sixties, I much preferred going there than to the Royal Court, and I remember seeing a very young Pat Eddery on Alvaro just failing to win the London Cup in 1969. I remember it because my money was on Alvaro. Ally Pally closed in 1970,when the crowd for its final meeting was, according to Pitt, a measly 2749 (of whom I was one). But immediately after the war, and well into the Sixties, its crowds were immense: a tiny course, it nonetheless packed in 25,000 at its re-opening meeting in July 1947, and 12,000 at its first evening meeting in 1955. Because it was so compact – it was known as the Frying Pan on account of its odd shape – there was no experience in racing quite like it (Chester is the closest among the courses which survive). For spectators there was little prospect of seeing any of the race clearly. I used to get as close to the winning post as I could and tried, often vainly, to pick out my fancy from the blur of colours as the horses hurtled up the final hundred yards. I did see Eddery on Alvaro, however, just getting touched off, beaten by a neck; a memory which still rankles. For the jockeys the experience was hair-raising. Chris Pitt quotes Geoff Baxter, riding then as an apprentice at an evening meeting: ‘I came round the bottom loop about 15 lengths clear and I started to wonder whether I was going the right way, the loop seemed to go on and on and I wasn’t sure if I’d end up going round it again. It was so dark, all I could see as a guideline was the lights of the houses and people standing in their gardens waving torches.’ Willie Carson is more succinct: ‘That place wanted bombing.’
Chris Pitt’s own Ally Pally was clearly Birmingham. Like Manchester, it was no gaff, and its history gives a sense of how central to English life the racecourse has always been. Suffragettes burned down the stands in 1914; like many courses, it was turned over to military use in World War Two; and in the postwar years it hosted huge crowds and was constantly being modernised. It was the first course after Newmarket to have a photo-finish camera. A refreshment bar was installed in the cheap ring in the late Fifties which, at 334 feet long, beat by 49 feet its Australian rival for the title of longest bar in the world. Closed in 1965, the course is now a housing estate.
How many courses will go the way of Alexandra Park and Birmingham is hard to guess. There are quite a few people in positions that count, in the big bookmaking firms, the British Horse Racing Board and the Jockey Club, who would like to see a more streamlined industry, with the 57 surviving courses reduced by at least a quarter. It is easy to be pessimistic about the fate of many of the gaffs, but there are grounds for thinking that, having survived until now, they will continue to do so. One reason is that the last closure listed in Pitt’s book was Teesside Park in 1981, so 15 pretty lean years have been weathered without further casualties. Another is that racing always seems to find a way of letting sentiment overrule reason, as was most apparent in the bookmakers’ response last September to Frankie Dettori’s ‘magnificent seven’.
On all the hundreds of courses noted in Pitt’s book, the number of times over the last two centuries when a jockey has gone through the card, even at the lowest of the gaffs, can be counted on the fingers of two hands. The most notable occasion before Dettori was on a course which is now defunct, Bogside, in July 1957, when Alec Russell rode all six winners. Seven-race cards are not uncommon, but to ride all seven had never been done. Moreover, Ascot’s card was a top-class one: highly competitive races for big prize money. Hence the bookmakers’ reaction when Dettori went to post on Fujiyama Crest, his seventh mount. They stood to lose millions, partly from accumulator bets on his rides, doubles, trebles and yankees (six doubles, four trebles and the accumulator), and partly from a mass gamble which had developed in betting shops across the country, with punters prepared to back everything Dettori rode as his winners accumulated. On all known form, Fujiyama Crest was something like a 12 to I shot: i.e. for every £10 bet on him, the punter would get back £130, made up of £120 winnings and the £10 stake. But so much money was riding on it that the horse’s price should have come down to about 4 to 1 on; i.e. for every £10 bet, the punter would get back £12.50, made up of £2.50 winnings and the £10 stake. Instead of letting the horse run at its market price, as their accountants would certainly have advised, the bookies turned into gamblers themselves, and held its price at 2 to 1 against, letting it start at approximately eight times the odds it should have done and losing themselves millions in the process. Fujiyama Crest won by a neck from the fast-finishing Northern Fleet, ridden by the same Pat Eddery who had been beaten by the same margin on Alvaro a quarter of a century before.
So the gaffs may survive. My gaff, the Ally Pally of my middle age, is Bangor-on-Dee, the only surviving racecourse in Wales. So lowly is it that even people in racing get it wrong, with trainers still sending their horse-boxes all the way to the Menai Straits Bangor instead of the actual course, a few miles outside Wrexham. It is not quite as odd as some of the courses which Pitt describes, such as Moreton-in-Marsh, where the horses in three-mile chases had to cross the Fosse Way, now the A429, twice, or Tenby, in Pembrokeshire, where entrance was ‘through a gateway at the bottom of the garden of a small cottage, known locally as “Three Chimneys” ’. But Bangor still has no grandstand, so that spectators who want to watch a race while it is raining are in for a soaking. (Once, in a really vicious storm, there was only me and the Duchess of West-minster in the open watching the race. She had a runner in it, I had no such excuse.) Bangor’s finishing-post is head-on to the crowd, so often no one knows who has won the race until the judge announces it; and because the centre of the course is farmland, there are several meetings in the year when it is not possible to see the runners down the far side because of the standing corn. For all its obscurity, however, it has its place in history, for the greatest jockey who ever rode, Fred Archer, the ‘tin man’, rode his first winner there in 1869 when he was 12 years old.
Fred Archer eventually did what racing people are not supposed to do. At the age of 29, worn down by ‘wasting’ (keeping his weight down artificially) and depressed by the recent death of his wife, he shot himself. They say that racing people do not kill themselves because if they do they will never find out how this year’s two-year-olds develop in their classic season. Occasionally, jockeys get killed in accidents on the course; but an off-course suicide is a very rare occurrence. Spectators generally survive, although I nearly met my own end at Bangor eight years ago. Sitting on a fence by the last jump, two of us watched with horror as a loose horse came directly for us at full pelt. My younger and more alert companion threw himself backwards off the fence but I sat there transfixed as the brute approached. Amazingly, when close enough for me to see up its nostrils, it veered off and ran straight through the running rail instead. Back home I received no sympathy: ‘It’s how you’d have wanted it and where you’d have wanted it,’ was the comment. I’m not so sure about the how, but the where seems fair enough. There, where the course is.
[*] Portway, 470 pp., £26, 17 October 1996, 0 900599 89 8.