I have this aim, as yet unfulfilled and probably destined never to be fulfilled, to try and visit every UK racecourse in a calendar year. Each year I get tantalisingly close yet something always conspires against me.
This year I’m going to miss the target by four or five, mainly with the Scottish courses, which are always a logistical nightmare, made all the more difficult by airlines drastically reducing, or rather getting rid of, racing friendly flights.
Ryanair’s propensity to use strange destinations worked in my favour on occasion, as what they called Glasgow was, in reality, Prestwick, located in Ayr and a ten minute taxi ride or 30 minute walk from the racecourse. It used to be ideal as there was a flight from Stansted on the Saturday morning of the Scottish National with a flight back in the evening. Both were very much racing specials, the last time I availed myself of the flights I had Choc Thornton sitting next to me and John Hunt a few rows back.
Now in the spirit of cutbacks Ryanair no longer have internal UK flights and the few airlines that do are not racing friendly with their timetables. Ditto with trying to get there by rail.
So the alternative, for me is an unimpressive 6½ hour each-way drive.
It’s a similar problem for Perth and Kelso. Hamilton and Musselburgh are a little easier being close to Glasgow and Ayr respectively.
On Thursday this week I was at Taunton and was very surprised when I realised it was my first visit there since January 2010. How could I have been away from such a delightful track for such a long time?
Taunton will never win any prizes in a racecourse beauty contest but it is what NH devotees call a “proper” National Hunt track. It’s one of those courses where the patrons are there to appreciate the racing and not to be seen. The racing is rarely top draw but some decent sorts can turn up and it’s handy for many of the big west country trainers.
It’s also a course you can get something to eat and drink and not walk away feeling as though you have been mugged ….. in short it’s an absolute delight to visit.
The only downside for me is it’s a devil to get to. 160 miles each way but it is, and if you are a frequent driver you’ll know what I mean, a long 160 miles. The choices are cross country then the M4 /M5 neither of which are enjoyable drives. The alternative is to do the entire journey cross-country and that can be very long, especially on a dark evening.
After the delights of Taunton the following day I was at, arguably, the biggest contrast in NH racing, Cheltenham.
Now there is absolutely no questioning the quality of the racing at Cheltenham, even the “smaller” races attract runners the likes of Taunton can only dream of.
However is Cheltenham a pleasant racing experience for the racegoer? I suppose it depends what you’re looking for.
Friday was a “quieter” day at the course with around 20,000 but it was still very hard to move around the place. Getting from the press room to the parade ring was an absolute nightmare.
I must admit I was on the verge of decking somebody by the end of the afternoon.
I get really irritated by people who think the walkways are good places to congregate for a chat with their mates as they sup their alcohol, not caring if they are blocking the way of others who want to move around – perish the thought anyone get in the way of their drinking.
On the subject of drinking I am genuinely bemused as to why people seem to be completely unable to socialise, or enjoy themselves without having to drink alcohol.
If not the drinkers, there are those who are walking along then decide, suddenly, to stop for no apparent reason, completely oblivious to anyone who is walking behind them. If I'm suddenly going to stop walking I will step to one side so I don't get in peoples way - that's it rant over.
I know several people who love National Hunt racing and want to see the best racing at Cheltenham but will not go because they find it so uncomfortable.
OK, it’s not a problem unique to Cheltenham and I also have to say, even though there are some exceptions, the drinkers at Cheltenham are generally better behaved than at courses like Chester, York, Ascot and Newmarket to name but four.
The question hast to be asked though, is bigger better?
Is it better to go racing at a smaller track where there is space to move around and get close to the action and the horses or go to a bigger course, where the racing is better class, but moving around and getting close to the equine competitors is much more difficult?
Indeed my experience at Cheltenham on Friday was so unenjoyably I didn’t bother going on the Saturday where crowds of around 30,000 were expected. There is no pleasure to be derived trying to battle to the parade ring then get back to have a vantage point to watch the racing.
The “icing on the cake” on Friday was the drive home, the first 20 odd miles in really thick fog where you could barely see more than ten yards in front of the car.
I’m even going to desert Cheltenham on Sunday for the delights of Fontwell, my absolute favourite racecourse. It’s Southern National day and it will be quite busy but I don’t care it will be a lovely afternoon and I can’t wait to, once again, stand near the intersection of the chase course – one of the best places, anywhere, to watch racing close up and personal.
Yes, size does matter and small National Hunt courses win every time.