Monday, May 10, 2010


As someone who would rather be a book maker than a bettor, perhaps it is a little strange that I would pick this topic. However, I would like to contrast our well-known courses in the US with some of those in Britain.

I don't think the general public is very familiar with racecourses outside their own area. Most of us know that the Kentucky Derby is raced at Churchill Downs. We have heard of Santa Anita, Hialeah, but the names of famous races, such as the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness are probably better known than Aqueduct and Pimlico

I can recall my first visit to Epsom Downs, although it wasn't Derby Day. It was very colorful, watching the bookies communicate with each other as soon as too much money was laid on one of the horses, causing the bookies to shorten the odds. I did attend a meeting at Goodwood, a beautiful course in Sussex. Because the UK is more compact than the USA, most folk are familiar with at least the names of Cheltenham, Newmarket, and Ascot.

A good friend of mine, who was truly a Squire from Lincolnshire, was for several years a Steward (racecourse authority) until some hanky-panky was alleged (if I recall correctly) concerning actions of his trainer. Although personally blameless, and upheld by his friends, my friend had to pay the price and was removed as a Steward.

The headquarters of racing in the UK is Newmarket, and I have visited that famous course, although no racing was taking place that day.

One important distinction is that in the UK "National Hunt" racing involves steeplechasing, an interesting name, although I have never seen a horse attempt to jump that high! I used to work in Liverpool, and I do remember that one year I went with friends to Aintree, the location of the Grand National, which engages the interest of a large proportion of the populace.

I enjoyed watching steeplechases, because there is a much greater chance of an "outsider" winning. Also, for reasons I cannot explain, the weight carried by the horse seems to allow for taller and heavier jockeys, including some successful amateurs.

Back to the US: What about trotting races? The only race with a well-known name is the Hambletonian. Thanks to Google, I discovered that this is now run at the Meadowlands, presumably in New Jersey. However, this form of racing is not very well known by the general public.

Back across the Pond: There is another form of sport in England, which I remember as being very popular in the Fifties, the "Point-to-Point". I remember going to a nearby meeting in Kent, not far from the Penshurst area, where my mother lived for many years.

Point-to-Points are usually held at less formal locations, such as large fields otherwise used for livestock grazing. The owner of the land has to put up with scores of cars parking on the land. Events such as the one I attended were a lot of fun, especially when one took a sumptuous picnic, washed down by champagne or Pimms No. 1 (in my day, one could also drink Pimms No.2 or Pimms No.3, but I believe those have both vanished from the scene).

Yes, there was betting there, with loudly dressed bookies very much in evidence. I suppose you could consider a Point-to-Point as being largely for the "Country Club set", but out in the countryside, its adherents came from all classes. Now that fox-hunting is essentially banned in Britain, something which one of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope, might find amazing, I hope that Point-to-Points are still thriving.

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