Happy Days

Last weekend I had a weekend off from racing, I had a good excuse though as it was my Dad’s 85th birthday.

Quite an achievement really as, having researched my family history over the past year, one thing that has become clear is longevity is not a family trait and by reaching the grand old age of 85 he easily holds the family record for longevity.

Sadly his health is not what it once was and there were some mixed feelings on the weekend as all the family gathered to help him celebrate his big day.

For as long as I can remember Dad has always bet, usually surreptitiously as my Mother does not approve of betting, also money was always tight when we were growing up  and she saw betting as frittering away money.

Not that Dad is, by any description, a big gambler. He bets in pence rather than pounds. I think the biggest bet I have ever seen him put on is £10 and that is one I paid for on-course and I could not stand the embarrassment of him being with me and putting on a two pound bet.

Dad is the sort of punter High Street bookmakers love, what we snootily call a mug punter.

I think I can say with almost 100% confidence that in over 60 years of betting he has never once looked at any type of form line. He tends to bet on names, although the exact selection criteria does sometimes change. The most usual selection technique seems to be any horse with Red in its name, which is how he managed to back the Grand National winner Red Marauder, probably his best ever win.

I have no doubt I caught the betting bug from him and I still remember my first “big” win. We lived in Portsmouth and I had £5 e/w on a 33/1 shot, I am ashamed to admit it now but I chose the horse because of its name but at the time I did not care, a winner was a winner.

All I know is the £208 I picked up was a hell of a lot of money. It was on a Friday afternoon and to celebrate I rang home and told Dad I had booked two tickets on that evenings ferry to Guernsey and we were off for a “Father and Son” weekend away.

A few weeks ago I was having a tidy up in the loft and I found the photo album with reminders of that weekend away. Happy days.

Talking of happy days, my postman has been busy recently as in the last ten days I have received my press badges for both the Epsom Derby meeting and Royal Ascot.

It seems only yesterday I was excitedly gearing up for Cheltenham and now we have the highlights of the flat season looming.

I make no secret of the fact I prefer National Hunt racing to the flat, however I am not one of those who loathes the other code. I do enjoy the flat, especially the top quality races although, like many, I get frustrated that the top performers seem to get shipped off to stud as soon as their three-year-old season is over.

Epsom, especially on Derby Day, has a great atmosphere. I have to confess before Derby Day became a working day for me I used to go to Derby Day most years, yet I had never seen the race from the main enclosures. I always used to watch the race from The Hill.

I say watch the race, that is not strictly true, you don’t see that much on the hill, just the horses flashing past you briefly and unless you look at the big screen you have no idea how the race is developing. For all that however there is a fantastic party atmosphere on the hill.

One year I went down to watch the Derby Start. Now I have seen quite a few starts over the years but watching a Derby start is something else.

For a start these are not ordinary horses. There are no donkeys or non-tries after a handicap mark in this race. These are the best and you can see they are. All the runners trained to perfection, in perfect condition, muscles rippling.    

The jockeys are somehow different as well. No joking, joshing or insulting. All with looks of intense concentration, even Dettori invariably looks serious.

When the gates open it is like a coiled spring being released, you can feel the release of energy. It is the sort of experience that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

Royal Ascot, on the other hand, is a meeting that has taken a while to grow on me. In strictly racing terms it has to be the highlight of the flat season. Five days of top quality, competitive racing.

OK it is hard work from a reporting perspective and trying to read a race with 32 runners charging at you head-on does little to help the nerves.

However there are the crowds. Now I know Cheltenham, especially on Gold Cup day, can be just as crowded as the Royal meeting. However at Cheltenham most of those there do have an interest in the racing. At Ascot far too many are there just to be seen and the racing is of little or no importance.

Now don’t get me wrong the non-racing “views”, especially on Ladies Day, can be a joy to behold and a more than pleasant distraction. However as the drink flows the afternoons can become less and less enjoyable, especially in the General Enclosure.

Luckily over the past few years I have managed to discover the “rat runs” which, with the benefit of a media pass, allows you to get around the place missing the bulk of the crowds.

This weekend sees one of my favourite racing days of the year. It is not a major festival and the quality of the racing is generally bottom draw. It is also the one meeting each year that my wife absolutely insists on joining me for. The first race is not until 18:00, yet in order to get a decent spot to watch the racing we will need to arrive at the course around 11:00 in the morning. I am talking, of course, about Cartmel.

The idiosyncratic course set in the middle of the Lake District, an impossible course to view the racing but a fantastic day out in a beautiful village. You park in the centre of the course and if you arrive early enough you can get one of the “cherished” parking spots by the rails.

We either park by the 2m 1f / 3m 2f start or by the open ditch. The barbies come out or, even better, go to the famous village store (home of the legendary sticky toffee pudding) and choose a selection of cold meats and pies from their deli.

There is something really special about a days racing at Cartmel. It is a meeting every NH fan should go to at least once and when you have been once it is almost an odds-on certainty you will want to go again and again.

The forecast for Saturday is for showers, they will not dampen the spirits at Cartmel.   

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