Week One Done

Well 2013 is already a week old  and I’ve managed to go racing three times already, none of which were actually in my original plans for this month, all of which were the result of the bad weather we have experienced this winter.

I traditionally start the year with racing at Cheltenham, for a National Hunt fan a great way to begin the year, even though it isn’t their strongest supporting card of the season.

This year the meeting was called off with plenty of notice so I had time to divert …… to Fakenham.

On the face of it going to Fakenham could not have been a bigger contrast but surprisingly racing at Fakenham has more in common with Cheltenham than you may think.

The biggest downside with a day out at Fakenham, unless you happen to live locally, is getting there. Dual-carriageways are few and far between in deepest Norfolk and the journey usually entails being stuck behind a horse box / lorry / tractor* (* delete as applicable) or if you’re very unlucky all three.

I have to admit setting off early on New Year’s Day was a relief as, clearly, the lorry and tractor drivers were having a lie in after the celebrations of the previous night and, for once I had a stress free trip to the course. It’s just a shame I cannot say the same about the journey home but that’s another story.

When you arrive at the course there could not be a bigger contrast with Cheltenham. The location is unapologetically rustic. Parking is in fields and I cannot think of a time where I have been to Fakenham and my car has not been plastered in Norfolk mud.

The contrast with Cheltenham is even more stark when you see the course itself. Whilst Cheltenham is open and undulating, set in a natural amphitheatre, Fakenham (being in Norfolk, where any land over 100m high is considered a mountain) is almost completely flat and incredibly tight, each circuit being only a mile.

So by now you must be thinking what has he been on, if he thinks there are similarities between the two courses.

Well the answer my friend is the crowds. Cheltenham is the one big course where most of those attending happen to be strong racing fans. Fans who appreciate what is happening on the track. Fans who are actually there to see and enjoy  the racing.

The same can be said about the crowds at Fakenham.  I know it’s a cliché that the smaller NH tracks attract the purists but Fakenham is the living embodiment of that cliché.

You won’t find the beer swilling stag and hen parties at Fakenham. What you will find is a loyal local following who know and love their racing and woe betide any jockey who rides out a finish a circuit early, or jumps an extra fence at the end of a race.

There is also a huge, non-racing, attraction at Fakenham if you are a lover of seafood. There is a chap from Cromer with a sea food stall, which has the best tasting shellfish you will find anywhere.

Going to Fakenham is an absolute delight, even though it is a pain to get to.

 

My second meeting of the week couldn’t have been a bigger contrast as it was Wolverhampton.

I had originally pencilled in a date in February for my annual visit to Wolves but with Southwell out of action, due to the weather, their meetings have been redistributed and as a result Wolverhampton was staging a 15 race card last Friday.

I thought that had sufficient novelty value to make it worth a visit.

Actually let me just make my position clear regarding artificial surface racing. I don’t despise it per-se. It has a place in the racing family, especially as it was originally planned, as a fall back when NH racing is lost due to inclement weather in the winter months.

However it has moved far beyond that, it now takes place all year and on many days it forms the majority of the racing. Now I accept there are a few decent races on the surface but it has to be admitted most of the AS fare is low grade racing.

However, for me the biggest negative is it is bland and boring. One of the greatest things about racing in this country is the diversity of the courses. They all have their own character. I’ve already mentioned Cheltenham and Fakenham, throw in the likes of Newmarket and Chester, Fontwell with its tight figure of eight and Aintree with it’s almost two mile National course and the diversity of our racing becomes evident.

Artificial surface racing, by contrast, is on a flat, basically oval, track with the only “diversity” being differing surfaces and Kempton being right handed. It is just so much of a muchness.

Anyway, I though Friday’s card would be different and it was and I have to say a 15 race card is too much.

It’s interesting to note that after race seven it was “all change” as we had new a new commentator, new judge, new starters, new stewards. Even the Racing Post changed their live reporter and race reader and most of the SP reporting team changed.

I soon began to realise why. By race eleven I was finding it hard to concentrate. Anyone following my race reports would have noted by then the reports were becoming even vaguer than usual, if that’s possible.

By race thirteen I had almost lost the will to live and by race 15 I was in a state of almost hysterical euphoria as I realised I had made it through to the last race, seven and a half hours after the first.

I did briefly wonder if my ambivalence towards artificial surface racing was clouding my judgement but I thought back to 13th March 2008.

This was the Thursday of the Cheltenham Festival, the day after racing had been cancelled due to high winds and in an attempt to stage the full Festival, ten races were scheduled that day.

For me Cheltenham is the highlight of the year, there are no bad races, it is racing at its supreme best but I also remember, even with what should have been a racing Nirvana, I was feeling jaded by the time race nine was reached.

I really do think it is possible to have too much racing in one go, even if it is top draw racing.

I can now see why it was “all change” after seven races.

The “usual” limit to the number of races of a card is eight and I believe that should be set in stone – having more just does not work.

My final meeting of the week was the Coral welsh National at Chepstow.

Originally scheduled for 27th December it was lost to waterlogging and rescheduled for last Saturday.

I have to be honest and admit I was secretly pleased it was postponed. It is one of my favourite meetings of the year and family commitments meant I would not have been able to attend had it been staged on its original date. So the move was a, selfish, blessing for me.

It is Chepstow’s biggest day of the year and it’s one of those meeting I like to arrive at a good three hours before racing begins, just to avoid the crowds.

I have to say the crowds didn’t seem as big on Saturday and they didn’t seem to be as boozed up as usual, which was a big bonus in my book.

My only concern was escaping afterwards would have been more difficult as, historically, the race was run as the fourth race on the card to fit in with the BBC schedule, however this time it was the sixth race to fit in with Channel Four.

This meant many people would be staying later than usual – in the past the crowd began to drift away after the big race so there were fewer around at the end of racing.

In the end escape wasn’t too bad, I left the course an hour after the final race and it took about 20 minutes to get out.

Despite the dire conditions racegoers were treated to some great racing, with some dramatic finishes, none more so than the big race itself where Paul Carberry produced, arguably, the ride of the season to get Monbeg Dude home in front of the Welsh trained favourite Teaforthree, out McCoying the legendry McCoy in the process.

It was also good to catch up with Lee McKenzie, who was doing the on course presentation, and to spend some time with him putting the racing world to rights. I have to admit I miss hearing Lee’s commentaries on course and hope he will, one day, return to the commentators rosta so we can hear his trademark “theyyyyyyrrrrrrrrrreeeee offffffff”.       


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