Saturday, 12 May 2018

37) Epsom Racecourse 1997

Number of visits: 1

In April 1997 I was attending a training course in Woking with my good friend and colleague David Bennett. This two day session required two nights in a local B & B. We had no plans to go racing, though we had already lined up tickets for that night’s football game between Crystal Palace and Reading. During the morning session of our first day it became clear that we would not be required to attend in the afternoon. The element of the computer system being covered was not relevant to us. Quite quickly an alternative plan was hatched. Racing at Epsom was only half an hour away. There was, however a bit of a problem. We were not expected back at the B & B until teatime and it seemed no one else was, as at around lunchtime our brief homestead was deserted. No mobile number to ring in those days. No access to our cash or the cash cards we needed. Our limited funds would have to do. So off we went to the home of the Derby for their season opening fixture.

After paying for entry our meagre collective funds required an early winner to keep further bets flowing. The opening race was a very competitive six furlong sprint. Our selection was both topical and sensible. Given our destination later in the day Selhurstpark Flyer, trained by the ever reliable Jack Berry was the obvious choice. In running he looked very much like the solution to our funding problems, leading from three furlongs out, with just one challenger getting anywhere near him. With five yards to go he was leading and on the line it was very close but we both knew we had been defeated. A head victory was awarded to Lord Olivier ridden by Frankie Dettori. The set up at Epsom was both spacious and impressive. It truly was a fantastic sporting theatre. From the stands you look way down on the horses below who are encouraged to drift towards the far rail by the remarkable right to left camber on the course. Not heavily attended this particular day, you could still appreciate how Epsom could host a vast crowd for one of our nation’s most prestigious sporting events.

Undeterred by our initial close call Dave and I pressed on in our quest for a winner. Race two provided another action packed photo finish but this did not involve our selection. Following the purchase of some much needed sustenance we had only enough cash for one more bet, unless it won. Following some earlier competitive races we now had only three selections to choose from. Sometimes the situation dictates your betting strategy and whilst we discussed backing the outsider, logic and our desire to back a winner took over and we backed the short price favourite. The favourite Palio Sky obliged with able assistance from Pat Eddery. We reinvested our returns in a competitive fourth race spreading our stake around to secure a positive interest. Of the nineteen runners none our three fancies finished in the top ten! To see such a large field charging past with a furlong to go was some compensation though. Somehow, surprisingly I was at Epsom.

We planned to watch one more race but had simply run out of money. The solution was literally staring us in the face. At this time every racecourse had a tote credit club facility. Usually an exclusive betting office for credit club customers only. It was often a haven of calm especially on busy days. On this day it provided a solution to our desire to keep betting. I had opened an account to celebrate getting my first proper job a few years earlier so armed with my memorised account number I placed a decent win bet on the final race for me and Dave. Twenty years later I still know this number even though I have not used it in over a decade. Supply and Demand was our choice, one of the 2-1 joint favourites.  Ridden by Kieron Fallon our fancy had little trouble seeing off his market rival. This sent us away with both a sense of satisfaction and the knowledge a cheque would literally be in the post with our winnings. Without doubt the best afternoon’s training I have ever had!

Thursday, 12 April 2018

54) Taunton Racecourse 2018

Number of visits: 1

Of all the racecourses Taunton could well be bottom of my list in terms of both races watched and my desire to attend. Historically it was a course with limited exposure. In the days before wall to wall TV coverage this would be the meeting with audio commentary only. Limited annual fixtures also combined with a tendency to race on firm/hard ground with low numbers of runners. Added to this its West Country location has kept it well of my racing radar. Nevertheless, in 2018 plans were made to tick this box and finally attend a Taunton meeting. We had booked a family midweek break at the not too far away Longleat Center Parcs. On the Sunday night we stayed at the Taunton Premier Inn after a four hour journey, so we were handy and fresh for the Taunton meeting the following day.

My wife Claire and kids Rachel and Jake have themselves put a lot into my journey to all the racecourses. Over the years they have enjoyed it generally without sharing the same level of enthusiasm I have for a sport that I love. On this day though it became apparent that, to use a racing metaphor, the Tomlinsons were beginning to tie up as we entered the final stages of my racecourses challenge. To be fair to Taunton they had done their best to engage with younger attendees on this first Monday of the Easter school holidays. However, the vintage tractors, Ferret racing, Beagle parade and Owl display generated little interest from Rachel and Jake who were both getting a little old for that kind of thing. They happily accepted the free egg on arrival and engaged in the racecard Easter egg hunt competition. Unfortunately though, they found the time between arriving and the first race, when I was enjoying assessing the racecourse facilities, too long and somewhat painful. To be fair the whole day they were understandably itching to get to the delights of Center Parcs. Hang on in their guys, only seven more new courses to go!

I was boosted by an early winner at Huntingdon, Presenting Pearl winning nicely at 4-1. The plan now was a positive start to the live action and I was confident of an initial success with my selection in the first at Taunton, Mount Rushmoore. So much so that I had made this my nap of the day and my selection for our works betting syndicate account. Five of us take turns at betting £50 of our collective funds. When you have a losing bet the next person takes over. The others mainly go with football bets. In theory at least I am the horse racing specialist. We had turned £200 into nearly £2000 and I was keen to be responsible for further success. Jake helped me secure even money, the best price available for the Colin Tizard trained Mount Rushmoore. My certainty was then heavily backed by the West Country punters and based on the betting activity defeat was out of the question. Unfortunately, no one had told the horse who showed as much enthusiasm for Taunton as the other Tomlinsons. After only two hurdles the warning signs were clear. Poor jumping was the main problem but this large beast could well have been unsuited by the sharp Taunton circuit. Eventually, he completed in fourth but had never looked like winning. I was more upset than normal about this defeat. It is always good to start with a winner and today a win would have been an ideal family morale boost. The main reason though was that it was the betting syndicate selection. I like tipping winners more than I do backing them. I want to be seen as the horse racing expert, whether it is true or not. To select a well beaten odds on favourite was most disappointing. There must be a chart somewhere which mathematically represents backing/tipping winners taking into account odds, outcomes and emotions. At the top the joy of tipping and backing a long priced winner. At the bottom a picture of me and Mount Rushmoore!

Not that any of this was Taunton’s fault and overall the facilities were more than adequate. Good stands, enough space and a range of eating options were helped by an increasingly pleasant spring day. A warm welcome, kid’s entertainment and the half decent card could not detract however from a sense that we did not belong at Taunton. This really was a day for the local country set, the majority dressed proudly in greens, browns and tweeds. The racecard further emphasised the point. We were attending on ‘Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’ day. Race three was sponsored by the UK Gun Repairs shop in Taunton who, apparently stock a wide range of guns and ammunition. We were definitely not from around these parts! This would not though in any way distract me from my focus - the days racing and the quest for winners. I would quickly get back on track in races two and three. Smart Boy held on by a diminishing neck to open my account at Taunton. This was followed half an hour later by a much easier winner, Royal Act who romped home with ease. Neither were great prices at around 3-1 but both were very welcome. Royal Act’s race was a chase so we had crossed to the inside of this tight, short circuit to watch the race from the final fence. Closer up you could see the true nature of not only the course’s tightness but also its undulating nature, particularly early in the home straight. Not all horses would perform at their best here. From this vantage point Jake and I decided to do a ‘Fontwell’. We walked over to a fence in the back straight with the intention of running back across to the final fence before the horses got there. Many others did the same. I got some great photos of the horses thundering past over the far side before chasing Jake in vain across the centre of the course back to the last fence. A horse racing analysis of my effort might read as follows: slowly away, outpaced early, stayed on late but no chance with winner!

Proudly on parade between races on this day were two local equine superstars. Regal Flow had just won the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter. Native River had just won the Cheltenham Gold Cup following an epic duel with Might Bite. Both were very well received by the local crowd. Native River looked particularly well, a horse that seemed to know he was a champion. We swerved race four and headed instead for the Orchard Stand restaurant. Pie and chips ended up being a much better bet than my selections who ran poorly. Race five would be our last and I was pretty confident of a good run from my selection Muffins For Tea. A backup plan was provided by Rachel. Her betting strategy tended to revolve around staking a pound on the biggest priced horse, especially if it was a grey. Cap Horner fitted the bill perfectly and with some form suggesting he was not without a chance I went mad and had £3 on at 12-1. Our two selections fought out the finish, with the grey outsider seeing out the three and a half miles best for victory. It is always great to end with a winner and very helpful if someone else provides it for you. Cheers Rachel. Her reward, in addition to a share of the winnings was that we were now finally heading to Center Parcs. On the hour long journey, which involved some dodgy B roads thanks to our trusty sat nav, we passed Wincanton, my next racecourse lined up for in just two days time. After forty years my journey to all the racecourses was heading towards its conclusion.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

22) Bangor Racecourse 1991

Number of visits: 1 

On the day of the 1991 St Leger I headed west to Bangor on Dee, not east to Doncaster. My twenty second racecourse at the end of another summer loading wagons and unloading containers at TNT. A colleague there Steven Knowles had an interest in horse racing. He knew my intention to visit all the racecourses and offered to take me to Bangor-on-Dee, in exchange for free entry. A deal I was happy to accept. The course is somewhat in the middle of nowhere but is not too far from my home here in East Lancashire. It has a natural setting, no stands, but great viewing from the hilly banks surrounding the predominantly flat track. 

Looking back now it seems strange for me to consider I placed no bets at this meeting. I was at a stage in my gambling evolution where I had funds set aside to have a decent bet if both the horse and the price met my criteria. I had a couple of races where I was considering a bet but in the end just watched. I loved horse racing so much in this period that I was very happy watching a race without any added interest. One particular race had struck me as a good betting proposition where I saw only two possible outcomes. It was a novice chase contested by only four runners. The top two in the market where the ones of interest. Dancing River, trained by W A Stephenson and ridden by Chris Grant was in consideration along with Achiltibuie, trained by Gordon Richards and ridden by Neale Doughty. Both represented iconic trainers and jockeys from the period. If either hit the price I was looking for I would be in like a flash with my £50 stake. In the end neither met by value criteria but my angle on the race proved accurate as the two finished first and second. The held up Dancing River, 4-5 favourite, cruised through the race to lead at the last going away for a comfortable ten lengths victory.

Recollections of a day’s racing from thirty-five years ago can be sketchy at best but three specific memories from this day have stayed with me. Firstly that it was my first on course experience relating to mobile phone technology. A punter was surveying the board prices in the betting ring whilst on his brick like phone. It seemed like he was communicating with someone else on course probably trying to secure the best price possible for a bet. Surely a sensible use of new technology back in 1991. However, the bookmakers around him at the time were not at all happy and made quite a fuss – threatening to have him removed from the course – this was treated as skulduggery of the highest order. If they could only see how technology would advance over the next thirty-five years. Betting exchange information and phone betting apps would have scared them to death. To be fair I have still not fully embraced mobile phone technology all these years later. 

This might explain why I was more excited that day about the presence on the course of the actress Malandra Burrows than the implications of mobile phones for betting. At the time she played Kathy in Emmerdale Farm and was something of a celebrity. Over the years I have seen plenty of famous faces at the races and it does genuinely add something to the day. Footballers in particular seem to be seen regularly on course. The combination of time on their hands, potential sporting excitement and not being short of a few quid has attracted quite a few to engage in the sport of kings. The footballing stars I have seen over the years include Stuart Pearce, Niall Quinn, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney. 

My final recollection relates to a horse taking a horrible, tired fall at the last hurdle in the final race. The horse lay stricken for some time, the screens went up and we waited – firstly with some optimism but soon with diminishing hope that all would be well. After what seemed an age the horse got up to modest celebration from those remaining and was led away wondering what all the fuss was about. The best result of the day. Back in Doncaster the St Leger was won in good style by 5-2 favourite Toulon ridden by Pat Eddery for Andre Fabre. 

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. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017

38) Hexham Racecourse 1998


In November 2014 my Dad and I attended Hexham races to watch Transient Bay make his debut over hurdles. Following a couple of promising runs in national hunt flat races the previous year this marked the start of his second season as a racehorse. This was my Dad’s first visit to Hexham and my second. The course has a quite picturesque setting in rural surroundings with a natural hillside amphitheatre which provides good viewing. The racecard identifies the course as Britain’s most scenic. I can see where they are coming from. Perhaps though the statement should be qualified with “weather permitting.” This cold, cloudy day would not do the course justice. Undeterred, on arrival we went to collect our owner’s badges. A simple task you would imagine.

Not on this day. Most racecourses allocate at least six free badges to owners and offer additional ones at half price. On this occasion my name was listed to get a free extra badge allocated to the jockey, no doubt to maximise our free badges. I was given free entry and able to pay half price for my Dad but there was an issue. My dad was given a voucher for a free bowl of soup but I was not. I had the audacity to politely request the same. My jockey’s badge it seemed was frowned upon and did not qualify for soup so I was given short shrift by the team managing this entry process. I could have protested further, perhaps ironically stating that I would still make my allotted weight even after consuming the soup. However, the queue was building up behind us and I could instinctively tell I was onto a loser. Now I like soup, especially on a day like this but it’s not really about the soup. Anywhere you go as a customer you want to be made to feel welcome. In horseracing owners are absolutely key to its longevity. Not for the first time at a racecourse owner’s entrance I did not feel particularly welcome or appreciated. Later, Soup-gate as I shall now refer to it took an ironic turn for the worse.
Transient Bay’s race was the second on the card, a novice hurdle over two and a half miles. Seven would run with prizemoney for the first four. Certainly an exciting prospect as we all gathered in the parade ring prior to the race. The partnership of twenty was reasonably well represented as the regular attendees were becoming established. Over the runs to come I would do my best to be one of them. The situation at Hexham would have been even more exciting had we known at the time that one of the runners would go on to win the Grand National. In truth, I had not even considered One For Arthur as a strong contender for this lowly race let alone as a future national hunt star. Lucinda Russell’s runner would finish a promising third this day before going on to much bigger and better things. Prior to the race there was lengthy discussion with our jockey, Kyle James. Surrounded by around ten people he outlined his thoughts directly to me, which did make me feel quite special. In short, his expectation was not high in terms of victory but he did predict a promising run to build on. One concern at the time was that Phil’s horses were not in great form. In fact his Up the Bees had just disappointed in the first race. One thing we were not concerned about was the hurdles themselves for our giant thoroughbred. They were no more than a tiny trip hazard to him. The official race record reports we were held up behind, pushed along 5th, soon struggling, pulled up 4 out. Not a great effort really and there was disappointment, initially mixed with a little concern as we were pulled up with almost a circuit to go. Speaking to Kyle straight after the run he felt the horse was not himself, was soon very tired and that the run was way too bad to be true.
Whilst I did manage one early short priced winner, punting success would elude me this day. In our race I backed the John Quinn trained favourite Zermatt who, whilst getting a little further round than Transient Bay was also pulled up. A confident bet on Present Lodger came unstuck when the jockey unseated right in front of us. My Dad was faring no better and after race three, decided to cash in his bowl of soup voucher. Unfortunately in the owners and trainers bar the soup had run out. Don’t worry Dad I bet they have loads left at the general racecourse canteen. They did, and it smelt great but this soup there is not for owners and has to be paid for. No doubt most of it was thrown away at the end of the day! Three years on I can confirm I have largely moved on from Soup-gate and eat soup on a regular basis whether paid for or not. Generally though, facilities at Hexham are not great. Certainly, the lack of a stand is a huge miss, even allowing for the hillside location. The betting shop is also quite intriguing, a bit like the opposite of Dr Who’s Tardis. From the outside it looks ordinary sized but inside there is very little room, small screens and something of a rugby scrum environment to overcome to get a bet on. Overall, you may have sensed the course is not massively to my liking and it would appear the horse agreed. When the fifth race was won by outsider Mrs Grass we knew it would not be our day and was time to cut our losses. Disappointed, cold and yes a little hungry we headed home. Looking at the day positively it was one of those that gave perspective. If the day ever came when we were victorious we would appreciate it more based on days like this.

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.