Today's lesson about British racing for the back of the bus gang, delivered by our Horse Racing Abroad guide, Chris, is that gambling debts are not considered legal debts in Britain, but rather debts of hono(u)r. Thus no legal action can be taken against punters who default on their debts. However, in these cases the British stewards can become personally involved in affairs, and toss the punter off the premises for good, which is known as being "warned off the Newmarket Heath". In response to a question regarding whether the punter who so defaulted might also expect to have his legs broken by unsavory characters, the answer came "That only happens in America." (nudge nudge, wink wink). Seemed like a bad idea to the back of the bus gang to test that theory.
--- Stanley House, Newmarket, England, Thu., Oct. 1, am ---
Horse Racing Abroad had scheduled the Mudders and Turfers for a couple of "bonus" events during the trip, and Thursday morning's outing to trainer John Gosden's yard outside Newmarket was the first. After a fairly long and s-l-o-w trip from London over roads that seemed to be designed to be slow, the bus arrived in Newmarket, a beautiful old country town with narrow streets and ancient buildings, and what looked to be an interesting National Museum of Racing on the main street, with a big statue of Hyperion out front. But alas, that wasn't on the agenda. Instead the bus continued on through town, past sidewalks that featured race horses out for a stroll, and after just a small gettin' lost incident, arrived at Stanley House, and Mr. Gosden's yard.
(kindly note: some of what follows may be a bit confused)
Stanley House was once the property of the Stanley family, the Stanleys being the Earls of Derby, and this is where the various Lord Derby's kept and trained their strings of race horses. Now the property belongs to Sheik Mohammed, and horses belonging to him and the other Maktoum sheiks who train with Mr. Gosden are stabled there. The whole neighborhood is littered with horse barns, so it wasn't quite clear just how much of the property used to be Stanley, or how much is now Maktoum, but it seems that the estate of Lord Derby probably consisted of the house and several barn complexes and a whole lot of land, and what Sheikh Mohammed has has now is most impressive.
(confusion part - more than usual anyhow - now completed)
What a completely different training environment for these horses than is usual on American backstretches! It's a nice, quiet, semi-country setting on a beautiful old estate, with lots of open space, and lawns, and immaculate stall facilities. The main stall facilities are two long brick U-shaped barns set off across a big yard from the house, with what would seem to be living quarters for the help located above.
These barns appear to be part of the original Lord Derby operation, and it is really quite impressive as to the scope of what one man's racing empire must have been in the past. One of the passageways through the barns has the walls covered in trophies from Lord Derby's (the Lords Derby?) winners, way back to the turn of the century, covered being the operative word, all four walls covered from floor to ceiling. Now there's even more to the complex as the Sheikh Mohammed operation, as there are additional new barns out back, not to mention the fact that he has horses with several additional trainers in England and France, plus Godolphin, and the other brothers Maktoum all have their own operations as well. While Lord Derby's operation must have impressive, the Maktoum operation is simply overwhelming.
In addition to all the barns, there is also a 7f training track in a big field out back of the house, plus a smaller covered training track out back of the barns. The material of the covered training track didn't feel quite right while walking across it, and certainly didn't adhere to the shoes like good old Sportsman's Park backside mud, so Mr. Gosden's head lad, who was leading the tour, was asked about it. He explained it was a synthetic track material, made primarily of shredded electrical insulation, which they had then mixed in with a little sand when they found the original had too much of a tendency to lump up. The horses apparently got along quite well on it, and the Gosden operation was pleased with it. Felt pretty good underfoot for plain old people to walk on - nice cushion.
The real attraction to the Mudders and Turfers, of course, were the horses in these barns. At least three Mr. Prospector colts, a couple of Danzig filles, more Alleged's and Sadlers Wells's than you could shake a stick at, and all manner of other well-bred and presumably costly horse flesh. Curiously, though, besides being mostly very well behaved, and very pampered and healthy looking, they looked and acted just like thoroughbred racehorses in barns everywhere.
All in all, a very enlightening day that offered a nice insight into a totally different philosophy for training horses than in the U.S. It looks to be much better for horses, but probably also puts much more of a dent in owners' wallets. Thanks much to Mr. Gosden, the head lad, and everyone else who allowed the Mudders and Turfers to visit.
--- Rowley Mile Racecourse, Newmarket, England, Thu., Oct. 1, pm ---
The Rowley Mile - not to be confused with the July Course, which is down the road apiece. Together these comprise the Newmarket Races, the British "Headquarters of Racing". The Rowley Mile structure dates from 1875.
Once again the Mudders and Turfers had arrived duded up in jackets and ties, and once again this was extremely fortunate, as jackets and ties were de rigeur for Members, which is where the Mudders and Turfers once again found themselves. No luck on this day noting parking prices, though admission was £3 (Silver Ring/Family), £11 (grandstand), and £16 (Members). So, for those who like to complain about admission prices in the US, please note that the Members admission was about $25 US. Just to walk in the place.
No special suite or room was reserved for the group on this day, which meant every man (and woman) for themselves, an arrangement which suited most of the back of the bus gang quite nicely, as it made for a complete afternoon of wandering the track on a fairly decent Fall day. The Mudders and Turfers quickly dispersed, and for the rest of the day, there was only the occasional meetup with a Mu or a dder or perhaps a Tu, as each found his favorite spot(s) to hang out, and there were lots of good hangouts in this interesting old facility.
Entrance into the Members enclosure led into a small courtyard, the Members Lawn Marquee, with paddock access and a building with Tote windows, behind what would be the clubhouse end of the stands (this being a righthand course, the left end of the building). It was quite obvious right away that this was a much more prim and proper crowd than at Brighton the day before, as a few of the members patrons did indeed dress and talk and laugh just like Monty Python's upper class twits of the year, no lie. Some of the starch was taken out of the Members Marquee area by a large vomit discovered on the ground more or less by the men's room that was eventually cleaned up about four races later. Also to be seen was a sign that said "No photography in the Members enclosure". Dang if some of the Mudders and Turfers didn't miss seeing that durn thing until after they had already committed photographical crimes. Luckily, the Members photography police never took action that day. At least, not that anyone would admit.
Out back of Members is the Preliminary Ring, where the horses are warmed up (and saddled?) prior to actually making a short trip over to the actual Parade Ring for the pre-race activities. The Parade Ring itself is quite a large and impressive one set back behind the main grandstand, with am immaculate lawn and a couple of big, old trees, and nice landscaping. What was very nice was that there were a series of terraces around the parade ring for people to stand on and watch the horses, so that more than the three people in front on the rail could see clearly.
The stands themselves, at least from the back, are vaguely reminiscent of the stands at Churchill Downs, with lots of little windows and seemingly random add-ons and balconies and stairways and little outbuildings, white in color. From the front, it's a medium sized plant built in an odd J-shape, with the hook part of the J (in Members) facing "up track", that is, to the right. The main grandstand is a two level open air affair, old construction with the supporting girders that block some of the view. Down on the Silver Ring end, there's just one level, while up at the Members end by the J, there's lots of private boxes. Fences, of course, to separate Members from grandstand from Silver Ring out on the asphalt apron, and most of the seating seemingly first come first served, except of in the boxes. Most of the crowd on the day, a good sized one considering it was a Thursday and presumably a work day even in England, was concentrated in the grandstand enclosure where all the bookies were, lots more bookies than the day before, and way more entertaining with all their hand signals, with lots of spare room in both Members and Silver Ring.
The Rowley Mile track itself is a big mirror image L turf course, with at least a mile straightaway from the right running up to the finish line in front of Members, and then probably a good additional mile running into the turn before the straight. There's no infield, as such, since the concept is meaningless, but a few tents laid out on the inside of the track, with a big board listing horses with jocks, that operated mechanically sort of like the score board at Wrigley Field, a huge TV screen, and a large grass field behind. The big TV screen proved to be a life saver, as it was the only way to see most of the races up till the time the horses got near the stands, and the camera work for this thing was quite good, as there seemed to be a moving camera truck or some such that would drive along beside the races in the early stages and catch the early running. Not that the early stages in these races seemed to mean much anyhow. The general plan seems to be for everyone to loaf along for most of the race and then run like heck for the last two furlongs.
The card on the day consisted of seven races, starting with a Class E claiming stakes, top claiming price of £20,000 down to £5,000, with a pound of weight off for each £1,000, for a purse of £5,000 added. Sixteen horses went to post in this one, as well as the following class C stakes for £10,000 added. More typical small US type fields, six and seven horses, appeared in the next few races, two class A (listed) stakes for purses of £16,250 added, and then the feature of the day, the Group I "Saudi Arabian Airlines Middle Park Stakes", a 6f dash for a total purse of £120,000. This particular race was won by the big favorite, Lujain, owned by Sheikh Mohammed and ridden by Lanfranco Dettori. When the horse went out back to the Winners Enclosure, (part of the Parade Ring), Frankie did his flying dismount to the delight of the crowd, Sheikh Mohammed was presented the trophy by Prince Ahmed Salman of The Thoroughbred Corporation, and the English crowd applauded politely.
Meanwhile, it was time to check out some of the facilities at the Rowley Mile Racecourse.
Gift shop, there is none, although there is a small souvenir stand run to benefit the jockey's guild (if memory serves). Plenty of restaurants and bars and food stands, featuring all manner of good junk food, from fish and chips to pickled eels. The pickled eels were passed up in favor of a pork loin sandwich with stuffing, quite tasty for the most reasonable price of £3. Best bar was the Tattersalls Bar down under the grandstand, though it had a different name which someone forgot to write down, where large draught beers were £2.70, with Guinness just a bit more at £3, and the crowd was hoppin'.
The big test for the Mudders and Turfers came in the sixth and seventh, two Class D stakes, where the art of handicapping 27 and 24 horse races was put to the test. In the 27 horse race, a 5f job for a purse of £9000 added featuring horses like Alrassam which had cost £265,000 as a yearling, 8 of the runners were property of members of the Maktoum family, and it wasn't real hard to figure out that a Maktoum horse was probably going to win. The only question was which, and to make things worse, none of the horses were coupled in the betting. This race was quite a sight to watch, as the 27 horses flew down the track like two coveys of flushed quail, with two whole separate races going on, one group of horses on the inside rail, and the other on the outer, and the whole middle of the track strangely absent of horses. When the dust had cleared, Easaar, owned by Godolphin with Frankie Dettori up again, had prevailed by winning the outer rail race. The 24 horse race, for a purse of £6000 added, was more like an organized cavalry charge, and featured no Maktoum horses, and Frankie Dettori was not riding so he did not win this one. Overall the Mudders and Turfers agreed that betting 27 and 24 horse races was a tough job.
Betting performance on the day was less successful than the day before at Brighton, with £11.73 left in the hands of the Newmarket bettors. One coup, of a fashion, was a successful attempt at the Place Pick 6, using a card with two horses in each race, on which both horses had placed in two of the races. Not bad for a rube. The £2 bet returned £53, but since the original bet had been made at 20p the horse, for a total of £6.40, and returned just £11.07 (how?) for that magnificent piece of handicapping, it was decided that the Place Pick 6 bet was a bet for chumps.
Thumbs up for the Rowley Mile. Cool old place, and excellent horses and racing.
An article in the paper next morning mentioned that the grandstand at the Rowley Mile was slated for replacement after the end of the 1998 meet, and subsequent investigation turned up the fact that the proud old 1875 structure is due to be replaced by something that looks much like the flying nun in a project known as the Millenium project. Luckily the back of the bus provided one last peek at this historic old plant.