A DAY AT THE RACES / AUTUMN/WINTER 2016 / ISSUE FIVE / NOTES MAGAZINE
architecture, characters and money. Dick Francis was on to something
Photos courtesy of ©Newmarket Racecourses
A day at the races
I must have been four or five years old. I remember standing out in the open under a huge East Anglian sky with my father. There was a long white fence stretching away ahead of us and down the hill in the far distance I could just about make out some people and animals milling about.
Suddenly one of the animals peeled off the group and began running towards us, then another and then another. I felt it first through my feet as the ground began to shake, then my ears picked up a growing rumble and within seconds there was a flash of colour and my nostrils were filled with a scent I’d never experienced before. I was terrified and exhilarated in equal measure. I realised I was gripping my father’s hand very tightly.
Suddenly one of the animals peeled off the group and began running towards us, then another and then another.
It was early one morning during exercise on Newmarket Heath and my introduction to the sport of kings. My early childhood was spent in a village a stone’s throw from the Heath and – bear in mind this was a long time ago – horses were more common than cars. For the most part they stood around in fields or poked their heads over stable doors in the stud yards that formed a large part of the village. Seeing them for the first time at full gallop with a man kneeling on their back (which is what it looked like to me) was something else. But even this seemed mild in comparison with my first race meeting some time later as I stood near the winning line at Newmarket’s famous Rowley Mile when a mass of sweating beasts streaked past in a thunder of hooves with a kaleidoscope of silk streaming above them, whilst thousands of racegoers shouted and screamed around us.
The sheer visceral excitement of horseracing is just one part of a complex jigsaw that can entrance and beguile people from all walks of life for many different reasons. Racing involves a cast of characters more exotic than a bouquet of orchids, more diverse than the contents of a bring and buy sale. Owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, turf accountants (brilliant!), stewards, valets, tipsters and punters – the list goes on and on.
There are people who go racing for the spectacle, the social mix, the champagne, silk dresses and sharp suits, who may spend all day in a luxurious restaurant having arrived by helicopter or a short chauffeured drive from a nearby five star hotel. Horses? Oh yes….
Then there are people who plan their day like a military operation, starting with forensic examination of the Racing Post before descending on the parade ring followed by a trawl of the bookmakers to get the best price. Then it's up to the stands, glasses raised (binoculars this time) followed by jubilation or disappointment, before the cycle starts again. Happy days.
Viewed from the perspective of buildings and landscape, Newmarket - or HQ as it is known in the game – more than anywhere else in Britain looks the way it does because of horseracing. In 2016 the town and the industry celebrate 350 years since Charles II, as obsessed with horse racing as a man could be, established Newmarket Heath as the spiritual and actual home of the sport.
Boasting not one but two of Britain’s premier courses plus numerous studs, trainers, the legendary Tattersalls sales ring and a multitude of horse related businesses, the town and the surrounding landscape look the way they do because of man’s relationship with beautiful animals and the desire to show that “mine is faster than yours.”
There is of course a great deal of wealth associated with horseracing and the atmosphere at one of the prestigious meetings such as Newmarket’s Guineas is not unlike that at an F1 Grand Prix weekend – just a bit classier. Prodigious amounts of money, most of it great sandwiches of the folding stuff, circulate at a race meeting. If yachting equates to tearing up banknotes whilst standing in a shower, racing means standing in a field whilst someone else tears them up for you. It’s just easier to get a glass of champagne whilst it’s happening.
If you’ve never been, take a visit to Newmarket. It has a unique geography and an equally unique character. Get yourself a brown trilby from Goldings in the High Street and you’ll feel right at home. If the combination of beautiful English countryside, exotic eccentric characters and some of the finest animals on the planet does not seduce you, I will be amazed. Go before the end of this year and you can join in the last of the 350 celebrations, further details of which can be found on the website
For more information and to book tickets for Newmarket Racecourse Spring events 2017 please visit