In the Black

23rd June 2019

My careful study of the horses’ and jockeys’ form in the early races resulted in consistent losses to the friendly bookmaker taking my money through the small hatch at the end of the corridor behind our box… [F]inancial equilibrium was restored with successes in the last two races, for which my choices were based solely on the names of the horses. (An Ordinary Spectator, page 191).

Given that horseracing/equestrianism is the second most popular spectator sport in Britain (albeit a long way behind soccer), I am conscious that its general absence from my chronicles of sports-watching represents something of gap. The sole reference to horseracing in An Ordinary Spectator concerned an enjoyable office outing to LingfieldPark in Surrey in the 1980s, when – as noted above with the usual rationalisation of the (very) occasional gambler – I claimed to have finished the day breaking even. Last Friday, accompanied by my wife Angela, I sought to reduce this spectating deficit by attending the evening race meeting at Ayr.

The Ayr Racecourse website informs us that the first organised horserace meeting in the town took place in 1771 with the move to the current site occurring in 1907. The establishment of the jumps circuit in 1950 meant that the course could hold both flat-racing and National Hunt meetings, the latter including (from 1966) the Scottish Grand National. A £20 million investment programme over the last dozen years or so has brought about a range of improvements to the course, which will host 32 days of racing this year.

Within horseracing, there is a hierarchy of rewards, the steep gradient of which parallels those seen in other professional sports. At Royal Ascot on Friday, the prize money for the winners of the 6 races – of which 4 were in the officially recognised Class 1 category – totalled in excess of £850,000. At Ayr, where the 7 races for the Tennent’s Race Night were in Classes 4 to 6 – the winners received a total of just under £30,000 out of the overall prize money of £55,000.

However, I have to say that for this casual spectator at Ayr, these financial differences were irrelevant. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, the programme was administered efficiently (with an excellent course commentator) and the racing was competitive, with most of the winners getting home by half a length or less. Our view from the trackside marquee gave a panorama of the full course; it was a very pleasant location in which to spend a bright midsummer evening.

It turned out that my gambling strategy was to echo that employed at LingfieldPark all those years ago. After the first two bets on short-priced horses (based on a close reading of the Racing Post) had been frustrated by narrow defeats at the winning post, I reverted to selecting by name for the Coca Cola Handicap. How could I resist a wager on the sport-related Trautmann – presumably named after the former German prisoner-of-war who famously played on for ManchesterCity after breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final? The jockey – Alistair Rawlinson – rode a brilliant race, recovering from second-last at the turn into the straight to come through the field for a narrow win. Trautmann’s odds of 6 to 1 put me into the black, where I was to remain for the rest of the evening thanks to the later investments on Suwaan (each-way in the Gordon’s Pink Gin Handicap) and Mujassam (in the Magners Rose Handicap).

For the avoidance of doubt, I recognise that, on this occasion, the gambler’s luck ran in my direction. On my next visit to the trackside, the success rate could well be nought from seven.

As ever with sports spectating – particularly with those sports with which I am less familiar – it is in the detail of the event that the clearest impressions are gained. On this occasion, there was much to take in: the ritual of the owners meeting the jockeys in the centre of the parade ring before the race; the thick wad of banknotes in the bookmaker’s hand from which he paid out on Trautmann with a friendly “well done”; the pride in appearance taken by some of the spectators on their evening out (even though it was not a formal Ladies Night); the rumbling sound of hooves on turf as the horses passed the nearby winning post; the roar of triumph (by some) when the result of a photo finish was announced.

In the build-up to the two races that began at the end of the straight away to our left, rather than on the far side of the course, the respective fields passed directly in front of our marquee on their way to the start. Angela and I stood by the rail and watched in awed fascination as each horse and rider – a majestic combined presence – went by.

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