Sunday, 22 October 2017

15) Leicester Racecourse 1989

Number Of Visits: 59

When I arrived at Leicester University aged eighteen in the autumn of 1989 it was clear my life was about to alter in a massive way. New friends, living away from home and new academic challenges were thrust upon me. In truth the one constant that transferred from my previous life to this was horse racing. In a way though the transfer was more of an upgrade. Suddenly I lived half a mile from a racecourse and close to many other tracks on the Midlands circuit. Over the next few years I would very much take advantage of this.

In those days Leicester staged quite a few Monday and Tuesday afternoon meetings which were integrated into my student life. Initially I had mixed emotions as the awe of my close proximity to the racing action was offset to some extent by guilt over missed lectures. In the end racing beat lectures by a distance, not least because the visits were such good value. I would enter the silver ring for £3 including a basic racecard. The old blue stand, part of which still exists (see above) was supported by good facilities up to about the half furlong pole. I also enjoyed the option to wander down to the one an a half furlong point near the final fence/hurdle which was an excellent vantage point. I also soon cottoned on to the enclosure transfer turnstile being opened up prior to the last race, which gave cheapskates like myself the opportunity to enjoy the better facilities in the Tattersalls enclosure. I was not on my own much to the consternation of the silver ring bookmakers who often saw reduced action on the days get out stakes. At the many Autumn/Winter meetings the weather was often bleak and windy and I recall one particular day when the bookmakers set up half way up the silver ring grandstand to ply their trade. There were more bookies than punters that day. I often ended the meetings helping myself to the published photo finish images which along with losing betting tickets became part of my student decor. 

The occasional Saturday meetings in April and June were the highlight of my Leicester student racing days. In fact Saturday 26th April 1990, my 19th birthday is one of my favourite days ever at the races as I was attending with a big group of friends on a sunny spring afternoon. This is still Leicester's big meeting of the year featuring the Listed Leicestershire Stakes which is now a Group 3 contest. A big crowd was treated to competitive racing, with representatives from many of the big stables and top jockeys such as Steve Cauthen and Paul Eddery. Both would ride winners that day for Henry Cecil and Michael Stoute respectively. My group was boosted by backing many of the days winners including Se-Aq, J Brand, Angel Train and big race winner Monsagem. Approaching the final race we grouped some funds together to have a decent collective bet on my selection. The horse in question, Kartajana was making her racecourse debut and would go on to much, much better things. She romped home and between us we had £35 on at what seemed a generous 4-5 as she was backed off the boards. A fantastic day. 

About six months later Leicester, at one of its obscure Monday meetings would become the focus of the racing world. I was there when the headline in the Racing Post read simply Leicester Piggott. Indeed this was such a big story that it became part of the mainstream news. Lestor, now fifty six, had two rides following his unexpected return to the saddle. His original retirement was five years earlier. Could his first ride be a fairytale return? I was next to the rail about 100 yards from the finish line. Lestor and his mount were locked together in a tremendous battle with a horse ridden by Gary Carter, another favourite jockey of mine from that period. I was literally right there witnessing something very special. Unfortunately Gary had not read the script and held on to win by a head. Lestor's other ride disappointed and he would have to wait until the following day at Chepstow to ride his first winner back in the saddle. Exactly one year later I attended the same Leicester meeting and this time Lestor made no mistake on the Dick Hern trained Claret. This was incredibly his 102nd winner since his return, with the Breeders Cup win of Royal Academy the undoubted highlight.

I have so many fond memories of my visits to Leicester through this period, attending roughly fifty meetings between 1989 and 1995. I witnessed some dramatic finishes and last fence tumbles. I watched some national hunt greats like Stearsby and Terao. One day following a must attend lecture I turned up for just one race to see future Derby contender Muhtarram. Racing all year round, flat and jumps was such a bonus. I celebrated some great wins (Milton Bryan) and suffered some big losses (Fly To The Stars). I even managed to get myself on the front page of the Sporting Life, stood next to the last fence. Sometimes attending alone, often with friends and later with my future wife Claire this was truly a golden period in by racing experience. Whilst attending Leicester University I doubled the number of racecourses I had visited from fourteen to twenty-eight. From this point there was never any doubt that I would ultimately visit them all. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

42) Ayr Racecourse 2001

Number of visits: 3

Tucked away on the West coast of Scotland Ayr is not the easiest racecourse to get to, pretty much wherever you are based. In 2001 on our return home from a mini-break to Inverness my wife Claire and I made a slight detour and paid a visit to Scotland’s only grade one track. This was a late August flat meeting which provided the added bonus of reasonable weather. Wing Commander won the first race I saw at Ayr for Michael Bell, winning pretty comfortably under Mickey Fenton. I was fairly impressed with the facilities and scale of the course, though the stands were somewhat dated at this stage. Later, Chris Thornton had a runner, Shane, owned by Guy Reed and ridden by Dean McKeown. I remember being disappointed that Chris himself was not in attendance and that Shane was unplaced. Jockeys featuring that day included Joe Fanning, Kim Tinkler, George Duffield and two emerging apprentices, Paul Hanagan and Keith Dalgliesh.

Sixteen years later I returned with my Dad to watch a national hunt fixture. To come this far there had to be a good reason, even for a good set up like Ayr. This day we would see my horse Transient Bay’s long awaited chase debut. I was not going to miss this. One of the largest horses in training, Stenna as he is known always looked like a chaser in the making. If jumping fences could bring about some further improvement in the horse we could maybe progress from moderate handicaps to some of the decent and more valuable staying chases held pretty much every Winter Saturday. This potential had no doubt occupied the thoughts of all partnership members over the summer following three wins in the 2015-16 season, including one at Ayr. Optimism was a little more guarded now however following two inauspicious runs to start the 2016-17 campaign. A pulled up at Uttoxeter was followed by another at Ayr. The first we put down to lack of fitness, the second we possibly ran over half a mile too far. Expectation was certainly mixed but worryingly the spectre of a breathing issue, common in larger horses, was now being talked about.

Nevertheless, I had always planned to ensure I was at the chase debut. Indeed this was my first runner over fences as an owner. So on a cold Sunday in January my Dad and I headed north in preparation for Monday’s meeting. In truth, I did not really want to go in some ways. Not wanting to give up Sunday with my wife and kids was a positive reflection on something approaching domestic bliss. They too genuinely seemed to not want me to go. Possibly my decision to take the family IPad with me could have been a factor! We were booked in to a Premier Inn not far from the racecourse which proved to be a good decision. It was welcoming, modern and certainly not busy. In fact prior to our horse running almost everything about this trip had gone really well. The only negative was cutting across to Ayr on the dodgy A70 in poor driving conditions. There was still a slight chance that the meeting would not go ahead if we had a lot of rain. Thankfully it was misty, murky, grey, quite windy but not very wet. Welcome to Scotland!

That evening at the hotel, a meal and a few drinks with my Dad proved to be an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Normally our conversations revolve around horse racing, family and football, usually in that order. With additional time on our hands we had a rare reflective conversation about our life paths, choices we made and the future – much bigger stuff than normal. He shared with me some new material – unheard stories from for example when he was doing nursing training and lived with one of his brothers. This was quality time, unusually slow paced in my busy modern lifestyle. As we talked I became very pleased with my decision to take this trip. Too often in the past I have taken the easy option and stayed at home. Now this contentment at forty-five years old may not be my pinnacle in life but that Sunday night in Scotland, anticipating maybe a big day ahead, things felt pretty good. In fact it felt like I was a winner whatever the outcome of the big race. In the background though, an unexpected element to this story was developing online. Having been priced up at around 14-1 in the initial Sunday afternoon market a sustained number of bets meant by the time we awoke the following morning we would be 4-1 second favourite. Clearly someone knew something but why wasn’t that me?

The set up for owners at Ayr is pretty impressive and in many ways sets the standard for others to follow. Owners are correctly prioritised and looked after. Great parking facilities, plenty of well organised staff and an amazing lunch set you up for a great day. Within the confines of the hotel near the parade ring a function room is where the food is served. We shared a table with trainer Phil Kirby and many of the other partnership members. Phil informed us that the Golden Horse tipping line had made Transient Bay one of their bets of the season. He really wasn’t sure why. After lengthy discussion we concluded that, whilst we have a chance, the current 4-1 was very poor value. Perhaps 8-1 was about right. In the third race I had planned to back Brydon Boy, who had recently been defeated by Phil’s Courtown Oscar in a hard-fought battle at Hereford. Phil’s insight would be of interest. He felt my selection would likely be feeling the effects of that duel and offered an alternative selection, Sevenballs of Fire, who he knew was strongly fancied by fellow trainer Iain Jardine. Fair enough, consider my allegiance switched.

The meeting was poorly attended, which is not totally surprising for a cold January Monday but certainly the reasonable quality card and good facilities deserved more. Another disappointment within this spacious racecourse was the presence of only a handful of bookmakers. Hardly a betting market at all, watering down one of my favourite aspects of going racing. Since I was a boy I have loved chasing round after the best price. Having a winner is great but backing it at a briefly available best price is extremely rewarding. So trying to back the favourite in race one and seeing the same price on every board was somewhat deflating. On a positive note both my Dad and I backed the easy winner Fairlee Grey. Then, however we discovered these bookmakers pay out mainly in strangely coloured and sized Scottish bank notes. This would prove mainly a fleeting problem as over the course of the day the performance of our selections would not test the thickness of our wallets or pockets! The racecourse stands had been upgraded since my last visit though elements of the old stands remained, integrated into the new. Race two was won by the Gordon Elliott trained Whizzey Rascal. Quite a few Irish trainers had made the trip this day. He also trained the likely favourite, Holeinthewall Bar for Transient Bay’s race later in the day. Meanwhile in race three Sevenballs of Fire ran poorly, weighed down by my heavy investment. My frustration was compounded by the easy and impressive victory of Brydon Boy. Cheers for that Phil! Following this and a near certain victory at Wolverhampton snatched away on the line, it was beginning to look like this would not be my day. However, success or failure on this day would inevitably be defined by the performance of our chase debutant Transient Bay.

Confidence was largely subdued as Adam Nicol mounted for our big race. The market, or Ayr’s version of that at least, had bounced back the other way with our horse drifting to a more realistic price. Following some great wins the previous season and probably two years building up to a run over fences the run itself proved to be a massive anti-climax. He never looked comfortable jumping and only got halfway round before Adam pulled him up. He was jumping safely but somewhat sluggishly. He was never really travelling with any enthusiasm, a bit like me on the journey home later! Adam explained he was not happy with the horse at any stage and so played things safe. He re-iterated his concerns about the horse’s breathing. The horse had made noises during the race that would require investigation, possibly an operation. Transient Bay himself seemed content enough, which was at least something positive for this disgruntled partnership group to reflect on. During the long journey home I would have given you decent odds on Stenna winning his next race. Nothing pointed to it. There was even a possibility he would not run again. Surprisingly though a few weeks later he did run and win at the rewarding odds of 16-1. Perhaps the Golden Horse people were onto something after all!

Sunday, 25 December 2016

9) Carlisle Racecourse 1987

Number of visits: 10

I have wonderful memories of racing days at Carlisle both on the flat and over jumps. My first visit in July 1987 would include Carlisle’s big flat race of the year, the Carlisle Bell. The very first race I witnessed there was won by the David Chapman trained two year old Kabcast. One fairly unusual aspect of watching racing at Carlisle was that the stand at the end of the straight provided an almost head on view. Accessed via steps near the parade ring this was a very different but still exciting perspective. I still have the race card from this meeting which shows that back then the horse numbers corresponded to the original entry numbers and so were out of sequence. For example, a field of thirteen was numbered between one and twenty four which seems very strange now. Horses I remember from that day include Hard As Iron, Socks Up and Taffy Jones. Regular northern jockeys in attendance were Steve Perks, John Lowe, Lindsey Charnock and Nicky Connorton.

I visited quite a few times with my Mum and Dad as a teenager. We would often start with a visit to the cafe which was located underneath the old main stand. Probably not high quality cuisine but it certainly had character. On my last visit to Carlisle before going to university they bought me a framed photo of the Grand National won by West Tip. When at university in Leicester, Carlisle became the unlikely venue of one of my favourite days racing ever. 

In my second year at University I developed a horse racing based friendship with the warden of my Hall of Residence, Adrian Wells. He had a keen interest in racing like me and at that point had a share in a horse called Wensleydalewilliam trained by Chris Thornton in Middleham. After a while he was in no doubt I too was a keen racing enthusiast and invited me to join him on a trip to Carlisle races via Middleham itself to watch Wensleydalewilliam make his hurdles debut. This included breakfast at the Thornton’s and watching the horse loaded up for the races and following on to Carlisle. The only snag was that based in Leicester we had to set off at 3am. Thinking back Adrian was uncertain I would make it and he made it clear if I was not ready he would go without me. To be fair as a student my wake up time was often nearer lunch than breakfast but he need not have worried. There was no chance I was going to miss out on this opportunity. My reward for this early start was definitely the longest and at the time my favourite day at the races. Before I knew it I was sitting in the kitchen of Spigot Lodge, legendary Middleham training base formerly run by Sam Hall. I enjoyed breakfast and the company of trainer Chris Thornton, his wife and other key stable staff. Adrian and I were treated like VIP guests. I remember discussing the story of Steve Smith Eccles who, sleeping in his car on the morning of the Grand National, was woken by someone trying to steal his car.

After showing promise in bumpers Wensleydalewilliam was fancied to run well in his first hurdles outing. At that time Chris’s runners were a big threat whenever they ran in the north. He was predicted to be second favourite to a similarly promising northern contender Kushbaloo. Carlisle was very cold, misty and grey that day but this did not detract from the excitement of the occasion. I still have a few old style photos I took. They were not of great quality but mean a lot to me. Stood way up at the top of the main stand, next to the trainer himself the day had been nothing short of an awesome experience so far. I did not enter the parade ring with Adrian but had been closely involved with everything else. There was nearly a perfect outcome when the held up Wensleydalewilliam came with a late challenge, but Kushbaloo was too strong on the day and we had to settle for second. Adrian was happy enough with that especially with the prospect of future success strongly implied. I too was upbeat having taken the slightly disloyal approach of backing our runner to win or come second to Kushbaloo at evens.

The hospitality Chris showed me that day and on future occasions would not be forgotten.  Ten years later he would start to train for me and would continue to do so until his retirement. This was also the start of several racing trips I took with Adrian in the early 1990’s which really sparked my interest in racing further and got me closer to its exciting, yet previously illusive, inner circle. At the end of every year Chris produced a printout of his horses in training with a review of the year and future plans. Adrian always passed on a copy to me which kept me in the loop. Following a trainer is a great way to enjoy and keep involved with horse racing, especially if time is limited, and I enjoyed watching his runners for the next twenty years. When he retired I began to do the same with Phil Kirby.

During late 2000 plans were afoot in the Tomlinson household to arrange a surprise party at the races for my Dad to celebrate his sixtieth and my thirtieth birthday in April/May 2001. Falling two weeks apart, any day in between was ideal and we settled on a meeting at Carlisle as a great option. We would sponsor a race and invite various friends and family to attend. There was a function room within the head-on stand which was available. We were well looked after in the preparations and my wife Claire and I signed up for racecourse annual membership for 2001 which allowed us to get the race sponsorship for half price. This shrewd looking move ended up as a costly mistake. All was well until disaster struck with the outbreak of foot n mouth disease in February 2001. This led to restrictions in the movement of animals, the slaughter of infected livestock and cancellation of many race meetings near to where infections had been recorded. When the Cheltenham Festival that year was postponed and then lost we knew we were in trouble. Carlisle meetings began to be cancelled. We provisionally moved the celebrations to later meetings but one by one these were also cancelled as the crisis continued. A nightmare for Carlisle racecourse, for horse racing, the farming community and for us. Eventually we abandoned our plans and made a mental note to maybe do something for my fortieth birthday. More on that later. Racing did resume much later in the year at Carlisle with the strange added feature of walking through a pool of disinfectant on arrival and departure. We went to only three meetings as part of our annual membership that year and missed the best of the summer action which was also a big disappointment. When racing restarted Claire in particular was most annoyed when the annual members facilities, normally restricted and exclusive, were opened up to all day members as part of the racing relaunch. She has not been back. Less prone to bearing a grudge, I have!

My Dad and I returned in 2014 once again thanks to my Racing UK Club Members free day passes. Much had changed since my last visit including the building of a brand new and quite impressive main stand. Our arrival was slightly delayed by heavy rain and we sat in the car park for a good half hour waiting for it to pass. Our trip up had included a breakfast stop off at Westmorland Tebay services, which unusually for these areas is well worth a visit. As we entered the course, having already eaten we were very much focused on finding winners. We also had the added inspiration of an impressive display of previous Carlisle Bell winners over the many years it had been run, including a couple we had witnessed ourselves. Despite our motivated state we would have to wait a little while to record our first success. The first two winners of the day were Spanish Fleet trained by John Wade and Knight’s Parade trained by Gordon Elliott. They had two things in common. One that they were both likely winners of their respective races. Two that my Dad and I managed to back neither. Spanish Fleet in particular won convincingly and went to record two more course wins soon after. For race three we played it safe with favourite Drop Out Joe, trained by Charlie Longsdon and ridden by Noel Fehily. A fine display of jumping later we had our first winner. I doubled up in the next race with Dark Glacier trained by Peter Bowen.

In race five it was my Dad’s turn to take centre stage on the betting front. Normally I would put bets on for my Dad with the on course bookmakers. I have better sight and can be fleet of foot when needed. On this occasion though my Dad retained control which resulted in a memorable outcome. His fancy Rolling Maul, also trained by Peter Bowen, was a talented but moody sort. Expecting around 8-1 his plan was to back it each way. When he saw 10-1 available my Dad swooped but then realised this price was for win only. Bravely and perhaps without full thought he switched all his stake to win only. As the runners headed for home this looked a big mistake. Simply The West was well clear with Rolling Maul staying on solidly amongst a group of horses well in behind. As the leader came to the last he jumped safely but slowly, showing signs of fatigue but he was still ten lengths clear of Rolling Maul who had now asserted in second. In the furlong or so from the last hurdle to the line two unlikely things happened simultaneously. What we witnessed from the head on stand we still talk about a couple of years later. The leader’s fatigue suddenly became chronic and he began to lose momentum and speed. Meanwhile a good jump at the last created just a glimmer of hope for Rolling Maul. As Simply The West wandered all over the track Rolling Maul was straight and true. Encouraged by an increasingly animated crowd (including us two) Rolling Maul closed in rapidly on the leader with a hundred yards to go and the two fought out an unlikely thrilling finish. In the end Rolling Maul won comfortably by three lengths going away. Later, I added one more winner to our haul when the grey Robin’s Command took race six for Rose Dobbin and Craig Nichol. I really like Carlisle and always have. It is welcoming, has character, solid facilities and when I go I seem to find winners, which always helps.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

8) Doncaster Racecourse 1984

Number of visits:4

Doncaster was the eighth racecourse I had visited and very impressive it was too. Home of the St. Leger, it had quality and size to match its classic pedigree. I went twice with my Dad in the mid-1980s and have two specific memories. The first was that a significant element of Doncaster was based indoors and in a different way than I was used to. This was a bit more than a betting hall, bar or food area. It had what could be described as a concourse/exhibition area – a larger than normal space within the main grandstand which housed amongst other things some of the on course bookmakers, extensive food and drink options and escalators to other levels with more of the same. Betting on course, but inside was somewhat unusual. It had and still has something of a shopping centre feel to it. The other memory relates to a very specific type of race that was held on my first visit – a “hands and heels” race which was part of a series for apprentice jockeys. As a teenager I was beginning to get interested in and understand the life of an up and coming jockey, the importance of horsemanship and the issues and arguments relating to use of the whip. As my knowledge of horse racing developed, new and more interesting layers of detail began to emerge. I was being drawn in to the world of five-pound claiming apprentices and excessive use of the whip bans. The more I knew the more I wanted to know. There would be no going back for me.

For some reason the geography in and around Doncaster has since been a problem for me. Not normally one to get lost I have managed to get into difficulty on both my visits since. On my third visit to the track in 1989 my college friend Paul and I struggled to find the train station after a day when we struggled to find winners. A missed train meant we had to head to Todmorden instead of Accrington. This meant a series of bus journeys at the end of a long day. Todmorden to Rawtenstall, Rawtenstall to Burnley, Burnley to Accrington and finally Accrington to Oswaldtwistle. By the time our tour of Lancashire had concluded parental concern was significant with worried phone calls between the two sets of parents. I arrived home around midnight about seven hours after the last race! Twenty seven years later in 2016 driving my Dad to Town Moor, I once again contrived to get lost, this time both on the way to and leaving this historic venue. Both trips involved a stressful and unnecessary detour around Doncaster town centre. On the way there I was in the wrong lane at a roundabout and realised too late. On the way home we were directed away from the course in the wrong direction and it took me quite a while to get back on the correct road.

This was the day of the 250th Doncaster Cup, a flat meeting the day before the St. Leger itself. County Stand tickets were courtesy of an Attheraces competition win on Facebook so we had won even before we entered the very impressive new main entrance and stand. Certainly Doncaster was better than I remembered in terms of the quality set up the racecourse has. There was also a great deal going on at this popular Friday meeting. Competitions, promotions, information, photos all in a friendly and busy atmosphere. Ladbrokes sponsored the meeting and had some great promotions as well as plenty of helpful staff. A week earlier I had attended Haydock Park on the Friday of their sprint cup festival. Doncaster was very busy in comparison, probably twice as well attended which was encouraging, though many like myself may have entered for free. Pre racing we explored what the new and obviously improved Doncaster had to offer. In short, plenty. In particular I was keen on the food court which offered variety and quality though not, as usual on a racecourse, value. My dad and I tucked in to pie, mash, peas and gravy in very pleasant surroundings. This multi-levelled and spacious main grandstand, the Lazarus stand was first class both inside and out. It was complimented by the paddock in front of the main stand which was a big plus point. The majority of the crowd were dressed up smartly, as were we, for Gentleman’s Day, with an array of impressive prizes on offer for those judged smartest. My Dad had made a real effort and surely would be short listed. More on that soon. If I am being picky two aspects of the set up at Doncaster came across as flawed. Firstly, beyond the winning post, the annual members and drinkers on the beautiful champagne lawn suffered from lack of ideal position. This is a common problem for racecourses when they extend facilities in this area. Secondly, on the other side of the Lazarus stand the ideally positioned old Clock Tower stand looked very lonely with only a few racegoers using it. We would do our bit later by swelling the numbers in this stand by two for a few of the races.

Before that we had some winners to find in what became something of a joint effort as racing began with no less than a Group 3 contest. Nemoralia was a strong favourite for the opener. Despite my best efforts I ended up backing her in the absence of an obvious alternative. She was soundly beaten, the race being won in a tight finish by Spangled ridden by Andrea Atzeni. This was our second loser after my selection in the first race at Sandown came last. Our initial selections had run very poorly and I joked with my Dad that at least we couldn't get any worse. I was wrong about that. We were both on the Mark Johnston trained second favourite in the first race at Chester. On the turn for home things looked very promising, our runner travelling well behind the leaders, although a little boxed in. Suddenly our horse clipped the heels of the horse in front, stumbled and did a somersault. There was a gasp of horror from those watching. The horse fortunately got up fine but not so lucky was jockey Franny Norton who broke a collar bone and some ribs. Whilst this was happening, literally to add insult to injury the short listed ten contenders for the gentleman’s day competition were being introduced. The £10,000 worth of prizes on offer included amongst many others holidays, clothing vouchers, racing tickets and gym memberships. These fine looking gentleman had two things in common. Yes, they all looked very smart. However not one of them was over thirty five! Surely all age groups should have been considered. As Doncaster’s race two approached these two old-timers were very much in need of something positive to happen. 

Right on cue up stepped the always positive Frankie Dettori and the John Gosden trained Ardad. We had backed him in a shared lucky fifteen and then both backed him in singles as a massive gamble saw his price halve from 9-1 to 9-2. Frankie and Ardad burst through on the favoured stands rail to provide a boost to our morale and our finances. We hot footed it down to the winners enclosure where we were treated to an iconic Frankie flying dismount. Sometimes success breeds success and in the next race my two selections fought out the finish, the unlucky Seamour second to Wall of Fire, well delivered late by Josephine Gorden. Race four was the big one, the 250th Doncaster Cup, won previously by great stayers like Double Trigger and Persian Punch. This race is actually the oldest continuously run race in Britain dating back to 1776. I was hoping favourite Quest For More would be added to the long list of previous winners. A furlong out he was leading and staying on strongly but being challenged by the persistent Sheikhzayedroad. As the line neared the gap between the two slowly but surely began to diminish. They passed the winning post locked together. Even watching again on the big screen I was unsure if we had held on. A nose defeat was the outcome. A tough loss as he was leading every inch of the race, except the last one. In the following race I was again beaten in a photo, this time by a more convincing neck. My selections at the away meetings brought no relief. With one race to go I was very keen to leave on a winner. So often my go to trainer in this situation is the one and only Sir Michael Stoute. I have been backing his winners as long as I can remember. In fact he has been around so long he may have had a runner in the very first Doncaster Cup. I had backed Khairaat before when he had come second on his debut at Salisbury. Their would be no photograph required this time as this promising three year won cosily to take the edge off a mediocre days punting.

Doncaster has great facilities, holds quality racing and is for sure one of the more impressive northern racecourses. Somehow though I did not totally warm to it on my latest visit. The set up is very good but did not gel the way Haydock does for example. My propensity to get lost when attending probably did not help. Also it is a little too far away to be a more regular haunt. It was good to go back though so thanks to Attheraces for the tickets. Much appreciated. When I do visit next I'll be sure to take a compass. 

Friday, 17 June 2016

10) Catterick Bridge Racecourse 1986

Number of visits: 2

One of the biggest attractions of British horse racing is its diversity. Track shape, size, direction, facilities etc. can all differ greatly. Factor in the randomness of our weather and you can have a myriad of racing experiences, and I have over the years. From downpours at Doncaster to snow at Sedgefield. Now racing has been held at Catterick since 1783 and somehow my Dad and I managed to attend the coldest/windiest meeting ever held there. It was some kind of miracle the fixture was even allowed to take place. I don’t have an extensive recollection of the day but it was a national hunt meeting and was easily the worst course I had visited at that point. To be fair there was little chance of Catterick competing with the likes of Haydock, York or Chester. The fact that the day was cold and bleak certainly did not help. One memory is of a rear door to the main stand almost blowing off upon trying to enter it. The facilities were pretty limited and the whole place was small in scale. I suspect strongly that a poor day’s punting did not help but simply put, Catterick disappointed – so having been, I made no plans to return – at least for the next thirty years!

When I returned with my Dad in 2016 it was based on free tickets courtesy of my Racing UK subscription and the hope that things had improved over the years. The wind would still be present, but at a much more manageable level. Weather wise this flat evening meeting in early May would be rather pleasant. Catterick had a belated chance to impress. The race card diagram of this flat circuit suggests it is a fairly standard oval course. It truth it is very distinctive – a sharp turn for home, significant undulations and a home straight which is anything but straight. The course actually jinks away two-three furlongs out providing an unusual aspect from the stands. Races over six and seven furlongs are often run at breakneck speed.  A handy position on the tight turn for home can be key with many winners kicking for home at this point. It reminded me a little bit of Chester but my Dad encompassed it best when he described it like watching cowboys and Indians chasing after each other in those old films. With viewing in the straight slightly restricted, the racecourse did not really help with a very small ‘big’ screen and an unclear commentary.

Nevertheless my evening started well with a couple of winners. I backed Moabit ridden by Sam Twiston-Davis and trained by Paul Nichols to win the first race at Exeter. I then followed this up with Clem Fandango in the first race at Catterick. He looked a promising two year old for Keith Dalgliesh. The next race, a claimer saw a cracking battle and photo finish between Chilworth Bells and Tatting. Ridden by up and coming apprentice Josephine Gordon the former held on to give me two winners from two races. Catterick was starting to grow on me. In race three it was back to reality in the maiden which looked an ideal opportunity for the Sir Michael Stoute trained Musdam. As Musdam passed my Dad and me on the rails at the half furlong pole he seemed to have the race under control. However, this inexperienced colt who was weak in the market was also weak in the finish and was worried out of it on the line.

We spent a little time later in the God’s Solution bar, a tribute to the grey sprinter who ran thirteen times at Catterick between 1988 and 1991, starting and finishing his career with wins at Catterick. The last of which was the appropriately named God’s Solution Handicap. A shining example of the adage – horses for courses. Upon closer examination of his racing record, running over six furlongs was the key to his success. Trainer David Barron tried him eight times over seven furlongs without a win. The only other course he won at was Pontefract which shares some significant similarities with Catterick – tight, left handed and undulating. Pictures of this striking grey adorn the bar area and certainly add an element of nostalgia to the course.

The last race we watched that night was the penultimate two mile handicap. Phil Kirby, now training nearby had two runners in the fifteen strong field. Pre-race we attended the paddock. The small parade ring looked truly beautiful in the late evening sunshine. Another striking grey Pertius caught the eye but it was stable mate Summerlea who took the prize for Micky Hammond. My fancy Balmusette disappointed, whilst Phil’s more fancied runner Triple Eight ran a solid race in third. Thirty years on Catterick was satisfactory. Sure it helped that the weather was good, entry was free and I backed a few winners. It has solid if not spectacular facilities and for a small track has something to offer. In truth I won’t be rushing back but I’m sure I will return to this distinctive racecourse way before the next thirty years are up.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

28) Ascot Racecourse 1992

Number of visits: 1

There was a great deal of racing media hype about the first day of Royal Ascot in 1992. It was not however that Leicester University student Jason Tomlinson would be attending for the first time. No, it related to the upcoming potential clash of two racing giants from that period. Both horses had also captured general public interest and were entered for the group one St James Palace Stakes to be run over a mile. American trained Arazi had won the Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in the most unbelievable fashion, coming from last to first and destroying top class opposition. If you have not seen this race please check it out today. Rodrigo de Triano had recently won the Two Thousand Guineas at Newmarket. This was the first classic win for Lester Piggott aged fifty six, since coming out of retirement the year before. The racing press had built up this Anglo-American clash for weeks and I couldn't wait.

Six months earlier I had visited Cheltenham for the first time. Now as good as Haydock, Aintree, York and Chester are, the larger southern courses have an extra edge – scale, quality and class. I was starting to take my racing experience to the next level. This was horse racing at its very best. Fittingly my companion for the day Andy loved horse racing too. Indeed, his love was purer than mine in a sense that it was born of admiration for the horses themselves. Mine in truth was more an outcome of my desire to gamble on these noble beasts. A friend from university, for three years we attended dozens of meetings together around the Midlands circuit. This day would be different though, better, brilliant! The delights of our main haunts Leicester, Southwell and Nottingham were many but could not compete with Royal Ascot on this wonderful day.

The first order of business was getting there. This would involve a more expensive and complex train journey than normal. Leicester to London, change on the tube, London to Ascot. I would love to see a picture of me and Andy arriving at Ascot on this grand occasion. Two scruffy students headed for the silver ring. No top hat and tails here thank you. Jeans and a t-shirt were more our thing. I don’t remember the cost of the train journey but I will never forget the cost of entry to the course, just £3. Unbelievable, the best £3 I have ever spent. The facilities in the silver ring were awesome. Great stands with acres of space in front and behind. Sure we were down around the two furlong pole but this was just where these races would begin to take shape. The weather was idyllic. Everything was set for a perfect day. I remember noticing that the other race meeting that day was Thirsk and feeling somewhat smug about my lofty location. I was at Royal Ascot with the best of the best flat racing had to offer. All I needed now was to find a few winners.

This would not be easy as the big prizes attracted very competitive and generally large fields. It was probably with this in mind that led me to put on a decent Placepot perm. Thirty two lines which involved two runners in each race except race five. My single selection in the King Edward VII Stakes was my nap of the day Jeune, trained by Geoff Wragg and ridden by Walter Swinburn. The day started well with a winner – but sadly it would be my last. Lahib, pictured above, battled home in the Queen Anne stakes under a forceful ride from Willie Carson. With several fancied runners involved in a tight finish in front of a massive crowd the roar from the stands was incredible. Willie just held on by a head from Second Set ridden by a youthful Frankie Dettori.

Finding the winner got a lot tougher after race one. In the Prince of Wales Stakes Willie Ryan produced 20-1 shot Perpendicular to land an unexpected victory. Favourite and my main selection Opera House was well beaten but Young Buster in third kept my Placepot hopes alive. Race three was the big one. After such a big build up there was only three-quarters of a length between Rodrigo de Triano and Arazi at the line. It meant little though as they surprisingly occupied fourth and fifth place. The epic clash had failed to materialise, victory going to Irish raider Brief Truce at 25-1. He would go on to be a very successful stallion. Amidst this disappointing outcome I had manged to sneak a place again with Zaahi in second. With the main fancied runners all unplaced in races two and three the Placepot was starting to look very interesting and I was still rolling. When So Factual got second for me in the Coventry Stakes I had just two more races to negotiate for what would clearly now be a decent return. That was the great thing about the Placepot. The dividend could escalate quite quickly. Trying to calculate by how much was part of the fun.

As the runners cantered down to the start for race five the importance of Jeune’s performance was beginning to hit home. Sure I had had a decent each way bet at 5-1. Sure betting success was always a big factor in how I feel about a day at the races. But this was somehow different. I did not want to spoil what had been a fantastic day in any sense. I wanted to progress by Placepot dream to the final race of the day at least. Most importantly it had become clear in discussion with Andy what was really at stake. If I won the Placepot these two impoverished students were coming back for more on day two. Suddenly a good run from Jeune and Walter Swinburn meant everything – and they did not let me down coming second. By splitting winner Alflora (16-1) and Beyton (12-1) the Placepot potential was boosted further. One leg to go to what could be untold riches! I was twenty one, nearing the end of my three years at University, skint and with no idea what I would do with the rest of my life. Yet I knew with absolute clarity what I wanted to do tomorrow.

Unfortunately race six was the toughest of the day. Run over two and a half miles the Ascot Stakes had twenty one runners all with a realistic chance. One of my two needed to make the first four. As they turned for home only one of my selections mattered as the field was strung out across half of Berkshire. Bardolph, trained by Paul Cole turned for home nicely placed and staying on strongly. As he passed me and Andy at the two furlong pole he was in fourth and keeping on. A big win on such a big day was within reach. As the leaders galloped on into the final furlong Bardolph’s dour efforts were being surpassed by several new and emerging challengers. The race was won by the Henry Cecil trained Gondolier ridden by Pat Eddery. Bardolph finished a tired but gallant ninth. The Placepot paid enough for me and Andy to have returned for the rest of the week, but it was not to be. I have not been back since which is a shame but I think it unlikely I could ever surpass the experience of Royal Ascot 1992 style. Cheers Andy.

Friday, 11 March 2016

18) Uttoxeter Racecourse 1990 - Part 2

Number Of Visits: 9

Twenty years after my previous visit to Uttoxeter I would attend twice in the space of a week or so in December 2015. In doing so I learned a great deal about racehorse ownership and fulfilled a lifelong ambition. The first visit was not an ideal day to go racing from a work perspective. An important meeting I always attend and present at was too late to move. I pulled in a favour though, partly sensing that this could be a big day. Certainly not a race to miss as we would find out a lot one way or another.  I was really pleased that Transient Bay was making his seasonal reappearance at Uttoxeter and hopes were high despite a poor 2014-2015 season. A couple of pulled ups and tailed off's nearly lead to the conclusion that we were all wasting our time with Transient Bay. However, many of Phil Kirby’s horses had been running poorly in that period and a couple of more promising runs to conclude the season had left us with two things – hope and a potentially well handicapped horse. Expectation was as wide as could be as me and my Dad made our way to the Midlands venue. We were quite short in the betting in what was clearly not a strong race. I was predicting anything from winning to pulling up and everything in between. As the day progressed towards the crucial race six this uncertainty would be replaced by optimism and then by confidence. By the time jockey Adam Nicol left us in the parade ring it was clear today was indeed the day.

We were made very welcome by the racecourse staff and their arrangements for owners were very good. Free food and drink in a fairly large owners and trainers facility near the parade ring. A poor start in race one from a betting point of view was followed by the first of what would be several winners backed on the day. Aubusson was making his debut over fences, ridden by rising star Lizzie Kelly. I had backed the combination at Haydock Park the year before when they had won a valuable hurdle and I was not about to desert them now, even as a short priced favourite. Once again camped out at the second last fence, my Dad and I watched a comfortable win for the combination. The winner was never really asked for maximum effort and I planned to follow the horse for the season with interest. A few weeks later Lizzie hit the racing headlines when she became the first female jockey to win a grade one race at Kempton.

In between races we bumped in to our trainer Phil Kirby with another of the partnership owners and discussed our chances. Initially Phil repeated a lot of what had been previously e-mailed, that we had a good each way chance and that he would recommend a large bet if we were say 8-1. He could not understand the plunge of money and stated anyone betting to win at the current price was very brave. The 5-1 and 6-1 from the previous night was now long gone and it looked as if we would go off around 3-1 second favourite. Phil touched on a specific strategy to handle the threat of the favourite who was a strong traveller but not necessarily a strong finisher. He also expressed concern about the close proximity of the last hurdle to the winning post. Our horse does not possess great acceleration so a poor final jump could cost us if we were in a battle to the line. This aside everything Phil said was positive and it became clear as the conversation progressed he thought we would win. He was not really worried about the ground, the horse’s fitness or even the opposition, perhaps the favourite Global Dream aside. Reading between the lines his initial nervousness was probably more excitement about a potential winner laced with just a hint of self-doubt. By the time the conversation ended I understood two things clearly. Firstly that Phil believed we had a very good chance. Secondly that many similar conversations over the last couple of days to other partnership owners repeated and passed on had resulted in the current price. The conversation reminded me of a very contrasting one I had with trainer Chris Thornton when our horse Pic N Mix was making his debut at Haydock Park many years before. Excitement and anticipation that day was soon dampened when Chris explained we had no real speed to win at the five furlong trip and would want much further in time. Our chance he explained depended on that being the case for all the other two year old newcomers in the race. Pic N Mix finished last.

The conversation with Phil nearly cost me a winner but I just got a bet on prior to the start of race three. For Good Measure trained by Philip Hobbs, owned by J P McManus and ridden by Richard Johnson was making his handicap debut. Not a bad combination and the team rewarded my speed to get a bet on with a facile win. When I backed the next two winners as well, Baywing and April Dusk my confidence was high as the big race of the day arrived. My Dad also backed plenty of winners himself that day and even better, looked like he had secured the Placepot at Southwell. His horse was in a tight photo for third in the final leg. However, we had to check the result later as it was time to get to the parade ring for Transient Bay’s race. Later in a rare low spot on a wonderful day we discovered he had missed out by a nose for around £80.

As the Waking Ned Partnership gathered in the parade ring confidence was high. When jockey Adam Nicol arrived his anticipation of this ride was clear. He was very excited and had also not eaten properly in two days to make the racing weight. We watched the race in the main stand with some of the other owners. For the majority of the race things went perfectly. We set off quite prominent and jumped well with the field travelling at a solid pace. As the race began to unfold one or two runners started to flag and drop away. As this was happening our strong travelling runner began to push on and stretch out the field. As they began to turn for home Transient Bay began to build a lead, with all the others toiling in his wake, including the favourite Global Dream who was clearly beaten. Entering the straight he began to pull away six, eight, ten lengths clear. Is this really going to happen – it was almost too good to be true. We were cruising in front. Way behind the pack was making little inroads and jumping sporadically. As we approached the second last we must have been trading at 1-20 or lower in running. This is one of the amazing things about horse racing. Very quickly the picture can change. You have not won until you are past the post. Three things happened in the last half mile to bring us back to the reality of horse racing. Firstly we almost came down at the second last hurdle. He jumped it fine but then stumbled a little on landing, losing both speed and momentum. This, secondly coincided with the now staying on well Dandy Duke emerging as an unexpected challenger. Ten lengths had now become six as they set off on the long run to the last hurdle. Thirdly and suddenly Transient Bay was all over the place. Tired, inexperienced and out in front on his own he began a mini tribute to Crisp from the Grand National all those years ago. As the two leaders approached the last there was now little between them. The dream was evaporating before my eyes. I was thinking about what Phil had said about the last hurdle and that second would still be pretty good. The horse had different ideas though. He jumped the last well. Upon eye-balling his opponent he then clarified that it was more boredom than fatigue that explained his wobble between the last two hurdles. With effective encouragement from Adam he saw off this final challenger and won going away by the line. For the first time I was a winning racehorse owner actually there at the course to see it all happen. A brilliant moment and incredible to share it with my Dad who had initiated this journey over thirty years ago. 

The next half hour was a fantastic blur. A joyous gathering in the winner’s enclosure. Photographs. The presentation to winning connections. More photographs. We were then taken to watch a replay of the race whilst toasting the win with champagne. It was a lot more comfortable to watch second time around. I was so focused on our own runner I had no idea during the race itself who our last hurdle challenger was. We collected our winnings and thought about our share of the prize money. The whole experience was great but now there was something even more wonderful. The real win was the realistic potential we now had. We were probably well handicapped, improving, likely to be better over fences. Thoughts turned to our next run. The future was very exciting indeed.

Thanks to Phil and his team for an incredible day.

We returned ten days later looking for a quick follow up win, carrying a seven pound penalty for the previous victory. Like last time the weather was kind to us, especially for December. Like last time we were running in a very winnable looking hurdle race over two and a half miles. Only Hollywood All Star, another last time out winner looked a serious threat. As we set off to the course we were even money favourite and the selection of the majority of tipsters. There were however three big differences from last time to this. Firstly, we now had expectation rather than hope. On the way, worst case scenario felt like coming second. On arrival, another difference was the atmosphere at the course. It had a pre-Christmas feel, with many enjoying a Christmas party and lots more in attendance than the previous Tuesday. There was a high proportion of new racegoers and my Dad found himself offering advice and tips to the inexperienced in the racecourse betting shop. The third big difference was that today’s handicap hurdle was for less experienced conditional and amateur jockeys which ruled out regular pilot Adam Nicol. This was to prove very significant.

We had a free lunch once again in the owners and trainers bar where we were joined by Phil and some of the other partnership owners. Whilst we ate, our runner and Phil were featured in the racing preview on the screens nearby. Phil once again seemed very confident. Discussion turned to the future. Transient Bay would soon be schooled over fences and could be running in novice handicap chases sooner rather than later. Phil explained to us the benefits of this option. We then sat and listened to him instruct another jockey who was riding for him at Southwell later that day. All a priceless insight for racing enthusiasts like my Dad and I.
Pre-race we were becoming a very strong favourite indeed. I had expected us to be closely matched to Hollywood All Star in the betting but we were now odds on and he was drifting towards 3-1. Whilst we did have a decent bet on our short priced charge both me and my dad were tempted in when the 3-1 became available. A value bet we could not ignore even if slightly dis-loyal. Our race now had two non-runners which reduced the field to six which on our first reaction seemed to be good news. An even bigger contingent of owners entered the parade ring awaiting our jockey David Noonan. He was an up and coming young jockey who the previous weekend had won a race at Cheltenham. We were not the only people who were interested in what he had to say. As he arrived our conversation was cut short by the Attheraces cameras who initially interviewed the group and then specifically the jockey himself. He revealed to the viewers that he had spoken to Adam Nicol about the ride and was confident about our chances. Perhaps a little too confident.

David had never sat on the horse before and this would prove critical as the race unfolded. We never had a chance to discuss that a strong pace would be ideal for us and would test the stamina of main danger Hollywood All Star, who had previously won over two miles. Perhaps he knew this already and had been fully briefed by Phil. When the six runners set off it was obvious nobody wanted to force the pace so they began at a crawl. Looking back the two most likely front runners were the two non-runners. Surely we need to push on and establish a more credible test. For the first half of the race they jogged round as a tightly knit group much slower than we would want. As they passed us with a circuit to go we could sense this would mean defeat. The race would end up as a sprint and our relentless galloping skills would not come to the fore. I was wishing we could speak to the jockey during the race to ask what he was playing at and get him to force the pace. I shouted at him anyway from the stands but more out of frustration than any real sense that he would hear me. The pace slowly picked up down the back straight but it was too little too late. As the kick for home began on the home turn we were clearly in trouble. The horse battled on to finish a poor fourth, with Hollywood All Star a very comfortable winner. On reflection I do believe if the race had been run to suit us we may have struggled to beat the eventual winner. David’s explanation after the race was that he did not feel our horse had the experience to force the pace. It would have been nice to find out! The consensus amongst the owners was that he had ridden a stinker and that it was his inexperience that had cost us and not the horses. A disappointing result for sure but as a group we knew this was not a true reflection of our horse’s new found ability. Transient Bay was fine and there would be another day for sure. Later I heard a random disgruntled punter lamenting our effort and suggesting we had not tried to win. It did feel strange to feel part of a group that had let favourite backers down. Horse racing is complex but not in my experience fixed.

We discreetly collected our Hollywood All Star winnings and prepared for the next big event of the day. The “who is wearing the best Christmas jumper competition?” This was being held in the winner’s enclosure between races three and four. Prizes included free racing tickets and free bets. Not being one to shy away from such competitions, I was wearing my newly acquired Christmas jumper in preparation. The entrants, perhaps thirty hardy competitors, were encouraged to line up in the winners enclosure. As the judges assessed the contenders my Dad decided to enter the winner’s enclosure to get a better photo of proceedings. Quite a crowd had gathered to watch and my Dad very much came across as the official racecourse photographer. The only clue that he was not was the shocking photographs he took, this one being the best of a very bad bunch. Controversially I was not selected as a winner despite flashing at the judges at the appropriate moment! Indeed, this was not a day for lots of winners like the previous week and things overall had not panned out as expected. I did however manage to find one good winner just prior to setting off for home, this time at the Ascot away meeting. Coming to the last Le Mercurey was looking well beaten by Amore Alato. The latter though hit the last, unseated the jockey and handed me a fortunate victory. An ironic reminder that for every winner there is at least one unlucky loser waiting for another chance at glory.