Magazine article The Spectator

Racecourses RIP

Magazine article The Spectator

Racecourses RIP

Article excerpt

We all lament the passing of the landmarks of our youth, in my case especially the demise of the old Hurst Park racecourse in East Molesey. I acquired my taste for the turf as a boy standing on my bicycle saddle or shinning up a tree outside the course to watch the jockeys flash by in a riot of blazing silks, yells for room and thrown-up divots. I was probably there in 1951 when the Winston Churchill Stakes, after going to French horses for the previous four years, was won by Sir Winston's own five-year-old grey Colonist II, ridden by Tommy Gosling, who won it again for him on High Hat in 1961. It is a few years now since we have had a prime minister with the time, interest or spare cash to indulge in racehorse ownership.

The memories of Hurst Park returned as I read Chris Pitt's lovely book A Long Time Gone (Portway Press, 26), a history of the 90-odd racecourses which have closed in Britain this century, some through incompetent management or falling demand, and many because of the better profits to be made from housing development. I did not remember Frenchie, the jellied eels man, whom he records complaining about the raiding parties of swans who used to come up and steal his product: `Those bastards are educated, they only take the half-crown portions.' But I can confirm Joe Mercer's recollection that more than one jockey got left at the seven furlong start. It was alongside the old Upper Deck swimming-pool where the local beauties used to display their charms. And it is a consolation to learn that an emotional link remains. When Hurst Park became a Wates housing estate in 1962 not only did Mansfield Town football club get the old stand, but 20 acres of the prime Thameside turf went to the new jumping course at Ascot.

A book about deceased racecourses sounds as appealing as a treatise on stuffing dead parrots. But Chris Pitt's volume is a delight, full of anecdotes. Bobby Elliott recalls at Hurst Park having the iron break on a new saddle 150 yards from the start of a 15-furlong race when he was riding Narratious Lad for Tom Masson. `The guv'nor had a big bet on him that day, so I kicked the other iron off and shouted to the other jockeys to let me through. I went to the front and none of them ever got near me again.'

As well as all the other hazards we punters face we should be beware, it seems, of jockeys going out to ride who can afford to flash a smile. At the old Bomford Bridge track in Birmingham, Josh Gifford recalls having words before a race with Tim Brookshaw:

I went past him at the second last absolutely cantering. As I did so I overdid my laugh and my dentures fell back down my throat. …

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