There's nothing so satisfying in the McChump universe as not thinking up an idea PLUS not having to do any of the work to make it happen. And such was just the case with the 1998 "Mudders and Turfers" tour, where Lee Tomlinson and Mark Cramer did all the thinkin' up and a lot of the work, and Horseracing Abroad did the rest, for a luxury guided tour of a couple racetracks in England and a trip to the Arc at Longchamp. All that was expected of the rest of us participants was a bit of cash and showing up at predetermined spots more or less on time, the first being that old favorite, the Newark Airport. The second being the proper terminal.
Good planning on someone's part, too, when overheard conversations from the seats behind revealed not only fellow travellers on the tour, but Internet racing correspondents to boot, with many a fine tale to tell of the recent bash at Kentucky Downs, including the excellence of Oaklawn Ron's mint juleps. Outstanding performance as well on the part of the airline with that trans-Atlantic drink price: free.
London arrival was a bit early to be checking in to the St. James Court hotel, so the afternoon was free for a round of Lost and Found: losing the hotel in the labyrinth of Westminster, but finding Buckingham Palace, betting shops everywhere, a nifty little park by the River Thames featuring a Rodin bronze called "The Burghers of Calais", and man that guy sure believed in big fingers and toes, Westminster Cathedral, and many, many friendly little pubs with tasty English brews in many varieties plus one with a killer steak and ale pie, all within a few blocks of where the hotel would eventually prove to be situated. Evening kicked off with an orientation and get-acquainted cocktail hour, progressed to an embarrassing gettin' lost incident led by Lee Tomlinson, and concluded with an excellent Indian dinner at a hole in the wall restaurant, entertainment in the form of 100 humorous stories from Harvey Pack. Thanks, Harvey!
--- Brighton Racecourse, Brighton, England, Wed., Sept. 30 ---
On the way from the hotel to the racecourse, the boys in the back of the bus got acquainted and attempted to handicap the day's card with the English counterpart of the DRF, the Racing Post ("now incorporating The Sporting Life"). This was just a bit of a challenge, as the format is entirely different from the DRF. No snappy tabular pp's. Instead, there's mostly verbal info on the horses in two different places which requires a lot of page flipping throughout the day. The first section resembles a track program, sort of, with the runners' names and silks and the probable odds, plus a short blurb on each runner similar to "A closer look". And a "verdict", pronounced by the poohbahs of the Racing Post.
The real handicapping info, however, is found several pages away, by horse name, not number, including a brief description of the last three races for the horse with the top three finishers and where the horse in question finished, lengths behind at the finish, final race time, lifetime record, a note of the going on that particular day, a half sentence description of how the particular horse ran each race, and a letter grade for the class of the past races. And that's about it. Detective work was required to determine if a horse was a frontrunner, presser, closer, or whatever. The class rating was quite helpful, grading the horses out like the dogs, from A (best) down to G (not the best).
After an indeterminate period of bouncing around in the back of the bus, with everyone getting crossed eyes and very newsprint-blackened fingers, the track itself appeared next to the road, a narrow turf course running along a ridge overlooking a bunch of homes on a slope down to the English Channel, with the track plant itself visible, but barely, still quite a ways ahead. Closer up, it was noted that Silver Circle parking was £4 per car. The parking rate for buses full of Ugly Americans was not immediately obvious, nor the parking rate for other classes than Silver Circle.
Admission was also noted at £4 for Silver Ring, £8 for Tattersalls, and £12 for Members. The English courses seem to have three different classes of customers: Silver Ring (you probably don't even want to know these people undoubtedly they have leprosy), Tattersalls (normal folks), and Members (picture Monty Python's upper class twit of the year. Not really, but that's how it felt.). Each class of customer has its own "enclosure", and patrons of the lower class enclosures shall NOT enter the enclosure of a higher class, although lower class slumming is permitted. Though probably you'd never want to go to Silver Ring because undoubtedly them folks have leprosy.
Horse Racing Abroad had booked the Mudders and Turfers into Members, so into Members the Mudders and Turfers trooped, on a chilly and grey day, with a stiff wind blowing in off the English Channel, into a special enclosure for special folks only, which was gratifying to all as the Mudders and Turfers had had to dress up in jackets and ties in the first place so luckily the effort wasn't wasted (but man, does the McChump Tour feel embarrassed about appearing in public like this, though truth be told McChump #2 was once seen in jacket and bolo tie at TuP). But being part of an "enclosure" has its own special uncomfortable feeling, too. Moo.
Beyond Members, even, the group had its own banquet room, the Operatic Society room, located above the owner's lounge overlooking the paddock. But as it turned out, the Operatic Society room was named after a horse, and not a local civic group, so a little uncomfortable snootiness factor was removed.
After a nice recap of the day's card by noted British handicapper Colin Fleetwood James, a tasty lunch appeared on the tables of the Mudders and Turfers, right about the same time as the horses started entering the paddock for the 2:10 race. Much to the consternation of the wait staff, lunch immediately turned into a moveable feast lasting about four races, as the Mudders and Turfers hurried out to bet and watch the races, came back for a bite, and headed immediately back out for the next. Kudos to the wait staff for their patience and good humor.
The paddock at Brighton is set back off what would be the clubhouse end of the stands, in the Members enclosure, and behind the building that included the Operatic Society suite. There aren't any saddling stalls like at American tracks, just an asphalt walking ring around a pleasant little grass area with some flowers in the middle. No toteboard, just a board giving the horse and rider combinations. The walking ring is the only place to see the horses up close before the race, and these horses do interminable laps around the ring before the race. The first race was a class D maiden stakes, but all the horses were healthy and immaculate. That would prove to be the case throughout the course of the week - always healthy, well-groomed horses. Only once was even the faintest sign of a horse being "off" in one leg observed. Finally, after all the walking, and riders up, the horses were hand walked out through the gap to the course, where each one immediately exploded into a gallop and took off down the course past the stands and toward the starting gate.
For betting, two options were available: The Tote, which had a kiosk right there in the Members enclosure, and the bookies, for whose services one had to head down to the apron in the Tattersalls section. The Tote offered a more or less familiar menu of wagering offerings: Win, Place (if 4 or less runners not available, 5-7 runners 1st or 2nd, 8+ runners 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, and up to 4th place if 16+ runners AND a handicap race), "each way" (WP), "dual forecast" (quinella), trifecta, "placepot" (place pick 6), "jackpot" (pick 6), and several others. The jackpot was only in effect at one meeting a day, and on this day Brighton wasn't that meeting. The Tote also offered the added attraction of minimum &2 bets.
The bookies, on the other hand, were primarily only taking Win bets, with a minimum of £5. The Tote proved much more familiar and convenient to this reporter, but many of the Mudders and Turfers made their way down to the apron to try their luck with the bookies, and that was quite an anarchic scene. No real lines, just people kind of pushing and shoving to get their bets down, the bookies calling out prices on horses, spotters for the bookies checking out the prices the competitors were offering and mumbling things like "Watch the 12 horse! Watch the 12!" into walkie talkies linked to headsets worn by the bookies, and the bookies erasing the prices on their boards and putting up new ones in response, so that a person had to be pretty darn quick to get a decent price from one bookie before the price changed to reflect what everyone else was offering.
Finally it was race time, and the horses were starting out waaaaaaaay up and around the hill to the left of the stands, the course being laid out in a kind of "C" shape on a ridge above town and terminating at the stands, sort of like the downhill turf course at Santa Anita except much much further away at the start. Off in the distance, probably 1/2 mile as the crow flies, dinky little ant horses could be seen running along the ridge, then down a hill around a soft lefthand turn, then down into a dip around another sharper lefthand turn, banked the wrong way btw, and finally up a rather steep hill the last several hundred yards to the finish line in front of the stands, after which they had to be be pulled up rather quickly, as the course ended just a couple hundred yards beyond in a sort of "runaway truck" incline up another hill. Very, very interesting races to watch. Much different from ye olde turf ovals in the States.
In between betting the races and dabbling at lunch, a little exploration of the track facility was in order. It's a smaller grandstand structure of brick construction, open seating on the front, four levels high, with some enclosed seating sections at the rear. Concrete concourse below and steel I-beams holding the place up. Not unlike many US tracks. Simulcast TV's about the lower concourse, showing the races going off at the other meets running that day. Amazingly, the start times of all the races nationwide were staggered so that one could see both the live card and the simul's if one so chose. Nice little bar just at the front of "clubhouse" end, where giant beers in several tasty flavors went for £3.30.
The card on the day consisted of 7 races, mostly in the lower grade range, with field sizes from 9 to 20 horses, the usual being 14 or 15. Top purses on the day were two £5000 added stakes events, with the distribution ~ £2800 for 1st, £950 2nd, £470 3rd, and £240 4th. The Brighton meet wasn't the premier meet running in England that particular day, but the horses were still pretty nice, and all the races competitive. One of The Queen's horses, Cool Performance, was entered in one of the later races, owner listed simply as "The Queen". The Queen's colors.
The second race was a "selling stakes", or claimer, with all the horses on sale for £5000 *except* for the winner, which was to be automatically auctioned after the race for a minimum bid of £2500. Very interesting claiming arrangement.
After one race there was a public steward's inquiry into the ride of one of the jockeys, and in one race a horse was scratched at the gate with the announcement that the rider, of all things, was unfit to compete. (In next day's Racing Post, a summary of the inquiry was printed - nice feature - and the scratch of the horse with the unfit jockey simply explained as "not under starter's orders".) The 5th race had been arranged by Lee Tomlinson as the "Mark Cramer Maiden Stakes", and Mark got his name all over the PA, and also got to participate in the Winner's Circle (also known as the walking ring) presentation after. For this race, there was also a £50 prize to the lad or lass whose horse was judged "best turned out", and several of the Mudders and Turfers did the judging (and hopefully were not secretly ridiculed on the backside for their decision.)
McChump betting on the day was moderately successful, with a whopping £10.30 profit, thanks mostly to a nice £26 winner in the 2nd, and several of the other Mudders amd Turfers did well, too. (There was quite an accomplished group of horseplayers on this tour, most of whom knew way more about the game than the 4 methodology).
Brighton Racecourse gets a definite thumbs up. Not Hialeah or anything, but a very pleasant small track. Best wishes to new chairman Stanley Clarke with all his future plans for the track.
On the way back to the hotel, the events of the day led the back of the bus gang into a conversation with the Horseracing Abroad rep, and it seems there are all sorts of juicy scandals going on in British racing, with the Queen's trainer Lord Huntingdon being called up before the BHB on a "non-triers" inquiry (BHB later dropped this - after Lord H. retired from racing), and the police had recently arrested the goverment official responsible for reporting "final prices" from the bookies at the track, on suspicion of reporting back lower prices so the big bookmakers could pay less on "final price" bets that had been made earlier. Plus some other nifty little stories. Quite juicy!
The back of the bus gang managed to close down one of the local pubs that night, though that isn't real tough in London as these things seem to close at about 9:30, but luckily the hotel bar was still open for those who needed to get prepared for the next day's adventure.