A little bleary, a little worse for wear and tear, the Mudders and Turfers arrived in London after tossing and turning on the overnight flight, and promptly proceeded to not get lost, as the welcoming sight of a Horse Racing Abroad guide appeared just outside customs. Furthermore, just outside the door was the welcoming sight of a big, plush, comfy, roomy tour bus chartered by that same Horse Racing Abroad, waiting to whisk the weary travellers downtown to their luxurious London accommodations. Relief. Rest. Relaxation.
For WIMPS!, maybe.
For you see, this first day in England, an unstructured day on the M & T tour, had been designated by moi as the original McChump M & T Tour Enhancement event. Nothing scheduled? Nothing to do? Room ain't ready for you to crash in anyhow, chump? Already spent an afternoon in the pubs of Westminster last year, did you? This is just the sort of situation where McChump Industries can be counted on to step in. Step in something.
Thus a hardy group of McChump-minded souls could be observed trudging on over to Victoria station, which luckily someone knew where it was, mere hours after arriving in London; wandering around semi-lost in Victoria station gawking and looking for all the world like tourists; commenting on nice cheese-related signage in the station such as for instance THE International Cheese Centre which I know it seemed astounding to encounter in Victoria Station on this particular day in history after searching for so many years but there it was that's what the sign said; plunking down £9.80 apiece for round-trip fares to Lingfield, Surrey, a short ride south of London; and finally managing to get on the right train (and shortly thereafter in the correct class of car). And then they could be observed snoozing on down to Lingfield, or studying the Racing Post, or a combination of thereof, or perhaps discussing the Wimbledon tennis match that was then taking place, also in the greater London area, and all agreed that yes, tennis is fixed.
The town of Lingfield is kind of out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields filled with sheep and cattle, and upon disembarking at the platform it (the red-roofed town) can be observed over a hedge just to the west of the tracks. The race track itself is a very short walk from the train platform, just down a ways and across a field with a nice path through it, and is set in the midst of lots of trees and hills with the town visible off to the right. A very pretty setting, made perfectly English by the cool and cloudy weather.
Admission on the day, grandstand (us schlubs being in jeans and such and thus not eligible for Members), was an even £10.00. Program: £1.50. Beer: £2.40 (Murphy's Stout). And then it was time to look over the track.
As seems to be the case with so many of the English tracks I've visited (seasoned pro that I now am, after maybe 4), Lingfield Park has a nice big park out back of the stands that has the walking ring, saddling enclosure, winner's circle, and lots of other park type amenities. None of this dinky paddock afterthought out back business we're so used to at modern American tracks. We'd entered at what would pass as the "right" end of the grounds behind the stands, behind Members to be exact, where they had their own private bar, and that gate led immediately onto a little walkway, a little mall if you will, down between the stands and the walking ring/winner's circle area, past a number of small buildings, like the program stand, and various concession stands, where goodies such as sausage roll (£1.75) and burgers (£2.25) and other tasty beers such as Boddersons Bitter could be purchased. Sausage roll receives a thumbs up. There wasn't a tremendous selection of stuff on sale this Tuesday afternoon, as several of the concession kiosks were closed, but it was expected that there would probably be more available during the coming Friday evening program when Lingfield Park would be throwing a Disco Inferno party and all the residents of that proper looking little red-roofed town off to the right would come prancing and a-leaping across that field in their leisure suits and gold chains, packin' a powerful hankerin' for a wider variety of vittles than were presently being purveyed. So we made do with what was available and didn't judge too harshly. No gift shop per se, but there was a limited amount of tourist related merchandise available in the Racing Office. A few small trinkets also being vended at the program stand.
Out front, the grandstand complex was observed to be made up of several different stands complexes, a private club looking building down at the right by Members, a bigger grandstand in the middle that seemed to consist of two separate structures, the one at the right end with open air concrete step seating in front and some enclosures up at the top and then the left end with lots of concrete steps underneath and some little skyboxes up top, and then an additional, smaller building down to the left with some uncovered open air concrete riser type seats out front and a big enclosed area up top. Accommodations for all types. The long apron that runs down in front of all the different stands is an asphalt one, and had lots of bookies pitches, benches, and some picnic tables. There wasn't what one would call a giant throbbing herd of bookies on hand at this particular small track on a quiet Tuesday afternoon for a crowd of maybe 600 people, but there were enough to fulfill most bookmaking needs.
This uncrowded apron was actually a fine place to observe bookmaking action by just backing up and watching a bit, and as these characters had fascinated me the year before, I decided to give them a closer look this time. First there were the bookies and their assistants down on the apron, and their initial job before each race seemed to consist mostly of writing down opening prices on their little chalkboards, posting them very quickly, and then immediately set about to erasing the opening prices and putting up new, lower odds. If a person could get down a bet there at the track at opening prices with any of these bookies he was a very very quick punter indeed. Meanwhile, a small contingent of conservative looking gentlemen, I suppose maybe the ones who officially record opening prices for whatever official organization records official opening prices, madly tried to scribble down these ephemeral opening prices into small notebooks. Once the original opening prices had been safely removed from public consideration, the real betting began. And as the punters began making their bets with the bookies, another group of gentlemen, not quite so conservative looking, began roaming the rear edges of the crowd, talking low and confidential into headset microphones which fed directly into headset earphones worn by the bookies at the pitches, or their assistants. Oddly, whenever one of these gentlemen spoke low and confidential into his microphone, while staring intently at the prices posted on a bookie pitch in front of him, a bookie maybe four pitches away would suddenly tear down his chalkboard and erase a price and put up a new, lower price. And thus it occurred that no matter what bookie you happened to approach to make a bet, they were all offering the same basic price on a horse! Then, just before the race was ready to go off, the conservative gentlemen could be seen making the rounds again, dutifully recording closing prices in their little notebooks. Though they didn't have to scribble quite so fast to catch the closing prices, as these seemed to stabilize after awhile. And not once, during any of this, was any gentleman involved allowed to crack a smile. Quite educating and entertaining, this bookie system.
Out front, the track complex is set in a hilly little infield, where sometimes the horses disappear behind small hills or clumps of bushes, and the main track, the triangle-shaped turf track, runs up a small hill at the backstretch turn and then comes down and around the homestretch turn, much as if the horses coming down the Santa Anita hill course had had to run up there in the first place off the backstretch. Lingfield Park also has a 2nd track, one of the few all-weather tracks in Britain, tucked inside the big track. It is also triangle shaped, but the hypotenuse of this triangle runs along the A-B leg of the big triangle, so it's a shorter track, and has wicked 90-degree turn coming into the homestretch. There are also some steeplechase fences set along the outside edges of the main stretch of the track, but these didn't come into play on this day. Lots of signage on the inside rails, and the Members cars parked in the infield completed the scene.
The live card on the day consisted of just six races, not real high quality ones, with the feature on the day a Class D handicap for 3yo running 6f on the turf that attracted 11 runners competing for a purse of £10,000. Other races included a Class G Handicap Stakes for £2500 to be ridden by apprentices at 10f on the turf, originally attracting 12 runners, but as there'd been an accident on the M-something or A-something highway causing a traffic jam, the supply of apprentice jockeys on hand came up a bit short on the day. So after the scramble to book whatever apprentices were hanging around, several of these runners came up without riders and had to be scratched. Other races had from from 6 to 11 runners, mostly towards the low end of that, for purses from £3500 to £5250 added. Five races on the turf, and one on the all-weather track. Simulcast opportunities were also pretty limited, as Beverly was the only other English track running on the day. While some of the rest of the group made a play or two on these simulcasts, I resisted, though I was sorely tempted to at least lay an action bet on the Cheshire Cheese Apprentices' Maiden Handicap.
The jockeys on the day's card were mostly unknown to me except for one Lanfranco Dettori - oops, no scratch that he didn't show up and thus was replaced on all his mounts - Kieron Fallon, one of my favorites, and Mr. Gary Stevens, who showed up long enough to ride one horse, a Tabor/Magnier owned maiden named Prokofiev by Nureyev chasing after a £5250 purse (winner to receive £3059). Prokofiev pretty much stunk the joint out and failed to win his race. After the race, Gary snubbed Stuart who wanted to talk to him for a Horseplayer Mag piece. So I lost just a bit of my respect for Gary right then. But Gary did look good in the Magnier (Tabor?) silks.
As far as the betting on the day, well, it didn't seem to be real sterling for anyone involved in this particular outing, at least until the final race on the card, a fillies handicap at 11f+ on the turf. That's when this handicapper noticed a filly named Common Cause who had recently woken up and run a decent 3rd in her last at 11-1/2f on this very same Lingfield turf course, and the bookies seemed to be offering a very decent price on her. So I marched on down to one of the bookies and placed a powerful £3 bet on her at 12-1. I felt taken, though, when I glanced at the Tote odds and saw her at 14-1. So I hustled on down to a Tote window and dropped another £3 on her. Woo hoo! An entire £6 bet on one horse! When she blew by the leaders in the stretch and drew off to win, I knew I was the King of British handicapping, and after cashing out with the unsmiling bookie and the pleasant lady at the Tote window, headed home up £55+ for the day. Another crushing triumph for InstaCapping(tm), as I'd been one of the ones snoozing on the train on the way down.
The entire group was apparently starting to snooze a little after the day of no sleep, however. No one noticed the little blurb in the back of the Lingfield program that said which train at which time went where, so the entire group packed on the first north-bound train that happened by and proceeded to doze off, secure in the belief that if you get on a train headed the opposite direction from where you came you'd end up in the same place you started. Even when it was announced that if you wanted to end up at Victoria Station you had to get off and change NOW! no one paid any heed, and before you know it McChump Industries had once again managed to commit a mighty fine gettin' lost incident as the train pulled into the station with the announcement: London Bridge. But this turned out to be a plus, as the group got to experience the joys of the London underground system at rush hour, standing tired and hot and squished and hopefully going the right direction, as the subway (thankfully) took us back to Westminster and the St. James Place Hotel.
No time for a nap, chump! The Mudders & Turfers introductory cocktail hour was coming up quick! Shower, shave, clean clothes, and there's cocktails to be consumed at that cocktail hour. And then a hike over to the local Indian restaurant for a fine group dinner with entertainment by the always fine (and sharp) wit of Harvey Pack, and then ...
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