SK goes to Newmarket - Evening Standard, Dec. 1999
The Kindberg coffers were running low, the Lottery seemed just a load of balls. How to make my fortune? Being a very sensible and mature sort of person, I hit on the idea of making money on the gee-gees.
Of course I knew something about horseracing - like betting on anything with 3 legs probably wasn't going to make my handbag bulge. Clutching a must-have accessory - a copy of the Racing Post - I came poste-haste to Newmarket, scene of over 50 important races a year, to do some equestrian-evaluation and place my first bet ever.
Would I get hooked, I wondered, and have to make lots of incognito dashes to my betting shop when I got home?
I'd discovered from a friend with a bad case of jodhpurs that the Horseracing Museum on the High Street regularly ran Introduction to Racing tours. The day included a chance to get some behind-the-scenes racing info straight from the horse's mouth, as well as an afternoon at the racecourse.
Newmarket, built on an almost-island of bouncy turf in west Suffolk, was bursting at its saddle-girths with visitors. It was Champions Day - a horsey highlight of 7 races including the Cesarewitch and the Dubai Champion Stakes - prize money £400,000.
Ever since I arrived, imperfect strangers had been giving me friendly tips, waggling their copies of the racing Post like symbols of a secret society.
"Lend A Hand, Friendly Ridge" I was told enigmatically at the railway station. "Distant Music!" cried a guest eating a full fried breakfast at my b& b., in training for a gruelling day at the betting booths.
Walking along the grassy gallops, past horses in sky-blue leg bandages doing early morning work-outs, I arrived at the Museum entrance to meet our guide Penny. A veteran of horse-world - she'd had a career in bloodstock sales - she sported a velvet headband and was pawing the ground ready to trot us off to a waiting minibus. There were 9 of us, all horseracing novices. One man, 80 and stone deaf, was on a birthday treat with his wife and daughter. Another hitched up his trouser leg. "I'm wearing my lucky ones" he confided, indicating socks of dubious tastefulness.
Like any serious young athletes, the 2000 horse-ettes in training at Newmarket undergo a strict regime - exercise on the heathland, fetlock-firming in a cold saltwater pool (only 2 have died of heart attacks), then a roll round a giant sandpit if they're lucky. "Keep together now!" said Penny firmly as she herded us round one of the many Newmarket stableyards - the Gainsborough, owned by Maktoum Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. The yard changed its name a few years ago after the previous owner had been shotgunned by his head groom, and a falling horse squashed a jockey's head.
Prancy young horses with impeccable family trees watched us haughtily from high- security boxes - their home for 21 hours a day - while Penny reeled off their pedigrees. Having famous parents was obviously a must for a successful racehorse I noted - as well as Pantene-ad hairstyles and good legs.
The deaf man wandered off to be reprimanded by Penny in strict riding-mistress mode while his wife stroked an aristocrat's nose.
We were coraled back to the Horseracing Museum for high cholesterol snacks in its cafe dominated by a horsey mural. Thinking "Horses horses everywhere and not a drop to drink" I nipped round the corner to a drinking hole called the Marlborough Club. It was full of tiny men with limps and bandy legs looking like a brotherhood of battered leprechauns. Here were retired jockeys who had tales of the turf to tell - of the £10 million paid for young Snaffi Dancer who never won a race and then proved to be a stud-dud - and of the jockeys' fears of getting fat. They were downing large quantities of Guinness - didn't have to watch their weight any more.
"In the old days we only drank champagne," said ex-jock Dick wistfully, and someone offered me his lucky bald head to touch.
Our guide for the afternoon, jocular jockey Malcolm, dapper in Norfolk jacket and trilby, minibussed us to the racetrace, using a devious route to by-pass the crowds. At its seething gates I bought a racecard - actually a £2 booklet that gives you that day's low-down on every horse that's running - its performance in the last 6 races, what the jockey had for breakfast - well, not quite. Malcolm, full of tips and horsey banter, guided us to the Members' Enclosure near the finishing line - entrance fee included in our £40 tour ticket. My heart beat faster as we joined a throng of trilbies and corderoy eager for sport, a racing tribe hung with necklaces of binoculars and trophy-badges.
I deciphered my racecard, Malcolm made some equine suggestions, I felt the ground - some horses like soft, some like hard, I'd been told. I scanned pedigrees, inspected jockeys' polyesters for colour co-ordination, looked at legs and perused the odds.
Suddenly I was caught up in a melee of racegoers, swept along by a surge of punters frantic to offload huge ruffles of notes. Eager bookies with hands-free mobiles palmed their money, tottered on little platforms, furiously wrote up the odds in felt-tip pen. A loudspeaker made urgent and incomprehensible announcements.
I plunged into a bookie-queue and cried with what I hoped was confidence
"Auntie Rose! £5 to win!"
It didn't, actually.
Nor did I really make my fortune. (No begging letters please.) It didn't seem to matter.
There's always the next race. And I realised that however analytical the approach, luck is still an all-important element in horseracing. That's what makes it so exciting. Not that I'm hooked of course. Now, where's my nearest betting shop?
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