I have had three days at the races in the last week – Ascot on Wednesday and Newmarket on both Saturday and Sunday. The Guineas meeting contains two of the five classics during the flat season, and as a piece of sporting theatre it was an interesting animal.
Newmarket is not run by the horse but it is arguably there only because of them. Everywhere you go within sight or sound of the Rowley Mile there are stables, with literally hundreds of boxes. You cannot imagine what the local economy would be like without racing – and yet – for all the friendly staff and good organisation, I felt like an outsider looking in.
My main observation between this elite level of racing on the flat and the top end of jump racing – which most people associate with Cheltenham – is that the one is more accessible to most of us than the other. Look down the owners of the leading challengers at Newmarket and they tend to be confined to relatively few hands. most of them connected more closely with Dubai than Ditcheat, the home of leading National Hunt trainer Paul Nicholls.
Throw in the Coolmore operation based in Ireland, and headed up by John Magnier and trainer Aidan O’Brien, and wrestling the big prizes into what you might call the heartlands of British racing – Wiltshire, Berkshire and Yorkshire – is getting harder and harder.
Perhaps that is why the crowds at Newmarket were so small compared to Cheltenham. On the face of it, a Saturday in May should draw more people than a weekday in March, but no. True, Saturday wasn’t the finest spring day ever, but Sunday was glorious, and yet still the combined attendance for both days was only just over 30,000, less than half the number that go to Prestbury Park for the Gold Cup.
Perhaps there isn’t that association with the names that return year after year, with the career of a flat horse being so much shorter. Perhaps it’s the feeling that the sport is contested by a select few and merely observed by the rest of us (unless you happen to be one of the tireless yard staff who give the horses the best possible care). Or maybe it’s just that Newmarket is – well, flat, exposed, and rather open. It didn’t quite create the fizzing atmosphere I had expected. Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the natural cauldron that is Cheltenham.
There’s no question though that racing is trying really hard to lose what can be perceived as an insular image. Not everybody knows why the winner of the 3.20 at Ripon a fortnight ago will prefer an extra two furlongs today on a left handed track. Ticket prices compare favourably with other major sporting events, and there is always the chance to pay for your day out by backing a winner or two. Moreover, my day at Ascot didn’t even cost me a penny to get in.
For the third time, the course flung open the gates and admitted everyone free, clearly trying to attract new racegoers ahead of the Royal meeting later in the summer, and at both Ascot and Newmarket, going racing has a sense of style.
Suits for the men (or at least, in many cases, jacket and tie) and what my untrained eye would say were party dresses for the ladies. Scruffy doesn’t come into it. The course staff knew their PR onions, and it was easy to see why in Alan Lee’s book “The Course Inspector” Newmarket was in the top three tracks in the country for a racing experience.
On the course, the two feature races showed there still can be a chink in the armour of the main yards. Dawn Approach took the 2000 Guineas for Godolphin – Sheikh Mohammed having something to smile about after a difficult few weeks – but Sky Lantern’s victory in the 1000 Guineas was not expected judging by Hot Snap going off as the short priced favourite. Champion jockey Richard Hughes, however, confirmed his confidence in the filly to win once they hit the rising ground towards the finish line.
Racing, it is said, is the sport of kings. Increasingly, unless there are hurdles and fences to be negotiated, it is the sport of Sheikh’s, men to be addressed as “sir”. Their influence is important in terms of their financial input at all levels, but for racing to be a sport in the truest sense there has be room for an upset. It mustn’t become a monopoly. Park Lane, yes, but also the Old Kent Road.
Photograph : http://www.britishchampionseries.com