An Enduring Relationship
It was my friend Tony’s 50th birthday last January and to celebrate his wife organised a delightful dinner party for close friends.
When we were chatting after dinner, Tony made the observation that, apart from his sister, he has known me longer than anybody else in his life. That’s a hell of a long time and, thinking about it, we have now been friends for nigh on 40 years.
We are not the sort of friends who live in one another’s pockets, we live in different parts of the country for a start but we are, I hope, always there for one another if needed.
When my father was diagnosed with a serious illness a few months ago it was Tony who was first on the phone offering support.
Certainly an enduring friendship and, as well as being a good friend, Tony is undoubtedly the reason you are reading this, as it was he who first took me racing.
He began going racing at an early age, when his grandfather used to take him to Fontwell Park, that idiosyncratic figure-of-eight course in Sussex.
I had picked up an interest in racing from watching racing on the television, my earliest racing memory is watching Nicholas Silver win the 1961 Grand National, yet for all the years of watching racing on television and, once I was old enough, betting I had never actually gone racing.
It was in 1984 that Tony rang me one day and asked if I fancied going racing at Fontwell and I thought that sounded a good idea, why not?
With my racing experience until then being from the television, where it was mainly the big courses which were covered, I expected a massive complex of stands and was quite taken aback by how small and, almost intimate, Fontwell was – but I was smitten.
Being young and poor we were confined to the Silver Ring but that did not matter. We were close to the action, you could hear the jockeys shouting to one another as the field thundered past and you were close to the action and atmosphere, something you can never pick up on television, even watching in HD.
Going to the intersection of the figure-of-eight course you can get so close to the fences and really get a sense of the speed, bravery and sheer power of horse and rider.
The Fontwell intersection is still, for me (and I know for many others), one of the best places in the world to feel the true excitement of a chase “up close and personal.”
That day was the first of many visits to the races for the two of us, invariably Fontwell as transport was an issue and our only other nearby course, Goodwood, was a) only flat racing and b) far too expensive for us.
Although, as we both begining our careers, getting to Fontwell was difficult as, in those days, all their meetings were midweek, so it meant having to take time off work and flexi-working had not been invented then.
However these early visits led to a lifelong affection for Fontwell.
It is quite amazing how many people I know who began their love of racing at Fontwell – I was chatting to commentator and Raceform racereader Lee McKenzie at Fontwell last weekend and he tells me his first racing experience and his love of the sport came when his father used to bring him to Fontwell, parked in the picnic car park, far away from the stands.
It is strange we also both remember our first meetings being called by Bruce Friend-James, for many years the voice of Fontwell.
Tony and I did have the occasional foray elsewhere, the most memorable being a trip to Sandown for Tingle Creek day, I think it was either the 1986 or 1987 meeting. What I do remember is it was a bitterly cold day and we went on Tony’s near vintage Triumph motorcycle, a journey of about a sixty miles from Portsmouth, where we lived. Of course being a keen motorcyclist Tony had all the gear, I didn’t …. least of all I only had a pair of woollen gloves to keep my hands warm in the freezing cold.
I can still remember arriving at Esher to discover my fingers were so cold, so frozen, I could not even bend them - they were actually paralysed. Tony had to pick my pocket to get my admission money out.
Those were great days though.
Since then days I have, of course, been to more race courses. Having a "day job", which frequently entailed being on-call evenings and weekends, meant it was difficult to go racing as often as I wanted and by the time it came to my 50th birthday I had only visited around 23 of our race courses.
For my 50th birthday, the present from my wife was a weekend at the Arc, a meeting I had always wanted to attend. She also made a throwaway comment about me visiting the remaining racecourses.
It was a good challenge and a year to the day after my trip to the Arc I was at Kelso completing my full set of UK racecourses.
Since then a lot has happened, I have been to every UK course at least twice - I finished with the rat race, took early retirement and a pension and went and undertook journalistic training. The rest, as they say, is history.
Having visited all the UK courses, quite a few of the Irish ones and plenty of international courses, I still have a very real affection for Fontwell and am always happy to return to what I consider to be my racing home.
I must also admit to having a certain degree of "possessiveness" when it comes to Fontwell.
For years it was privately owned and, being honest, it did begin to decline. It was eventually taken over by Northern Racing and I have to admit to having initial fears of the entire site being painted in their corporate green colours, something that thankfully did not happen.
What was announced next had me in fits of apoplexy though – Northern Racing wanted to demolish the old members stand and replace it with a new facility.
For those of you who have never been to Fontwell, the old stand had character, more importantly behind the stand you could find some of the most beautiful gardens at any racecourse in the country.
I (and many others) had visions of the entire character of this beautiful course being wiped away in the name of “progress” …. I was even quietly vowing never to return to the course again.
Well the work went ahead and the new stand opened in August.
I went to last Sunday’s meeting to see the end result, expecting to be dismayed …. I was wrong.
The new grandstand, whilst unarguably modern and designed more for the corporate racegoers, has not spoiled the character of the course at all. Indeed it has actually enhanced the character.
There is a patio at the rear of the stand, with tables, offering views across the gardens, which still remain, and towards the old house which still sits imperially in the grounds.
The inside of the stand is spacious, bright and airy with a range of bars and food outlets – even selling salads and healthy food options.
The front of the stand only has limited tiered viewing but it does have some much needed seating, something which was sadly lacking previously.
Although he will not have heard it, I apologise unreservedly to Fontwell’s General Manager, Phil Bell, for all the names I called him when the rebuilding work was first mooted. I even considered commissioning voodoo dolls of those behind the decision. I am more than happy to admit I was totally wrong and my fears were unfounded.
Fontwell had now set the benchmark in showing it is possible to modernise a racecourse without destroying its inherent charm and character – well done to all concerned.
In the days of the late Stan Clarke, the father of Northern Racing, Uttoxeter was undoubtedly the Jewel In The (Corporate) Crown, today I believe Fontwell Park has taken over that mantle.
From a purely selfish point of view it means I can still continue the enduring relationship with my favourite course. Next time I visit Fontwell I must take Tony and show him the new stand.