As the old adage goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and at Goodwood it’s not a Good-one. The drive through the villages of Surrey and Sussex is pretty, but as soon as you get within sight of the racecourse the problems start. Signs for parking are not very large or very clear. I make three aborted attempts to pull into a car park and eventually find my way to Car Park 9, eschewing the £5 charge for Car Park 8 that gets you fractionally closer. Something within me dislikes this idea of driving past all the other car parks and pulling up on a scrubby piece of land about 3 miles from the grandstand. Perhaps it’s just my dodgy knee.
The shenanigans don’t stop by the time you reach the entrance, either. A gormless teenager asks me which enclosure, before looking up and down and saying “oh, you can’t get in to the Richmond, I’ll do you a Gordon.” She then stabs aimlessly at a laptop whilst saying “the system is really slow”. I smile politely and refrain from saying that the system is broken. I have cash; she has tickets and change; why does this transaction need to take three minutes?
Finally I understand why I was so taken with Market Rasen. Everyone parked in the same spot (including Tom Scudamore, that I failed to notice on the way in) and despite there being different enclosures they melded seamlessly together. In fact if you were blindfolded and put in the cheapest at Market Rasen you would probably think it was Premier, such is the standard of the facilities at all three.
I was intrigued why Anna at BBC Radio Newcastle had mentioned how posh Cheltenham appeared. I’ve been there so many times and never once has it occurred to me. Despite me recently appreciating it’s failings, it remains a great leveler. It doesn’t matter where you come from, where you went to school, or who your father knows – you go to Cheltenham and you stand legion to witness the greatness that the sport has to offer (except if you’re in hospitality and don’t care about the racing, that is).
Eventually I am in, and not many times do people or institutions with such poor first impressions manage to turn it around so well on a second viewing. If I had to choose one word that would be a litmus test for my appreciation of a racecourse this last 72 days it has been ‘space’, and Goodwood has that in abundance. Perhaps that’s why the plebs have to park so bloody far away?
The Richmond Enclosure is reminiscent of Parisian café culture, without the annoying French to mess things up. Stylish things soak up the sun and bottles of wine at small tables, whilst in the Gordon there are bandstands of beer outside and acres of options in the underground caverns. Furlongs of bars stand eager to serve, and although the food outlets are expensive (you pay £1 per inch of sausage roll, I kid you not – there’s an obvious joke there but I’ll let you make your own one up) there is an astonishing array.
It doesn’t stop there. Beautifully manicured lawns beckon you to go and find the benches dotted around, and there is a free seated stand that has stunning views over the action. Families lounge on picnic blankets and there is more than one school party wondering around. Top marks to the management of the racecourse and the schools involved – this really does seem a cheap and effective way to secure the future of this marvelous sport.
The course slightly suffers from the issue that a lot of the action is happening at least half a mile away, but somehow it gets away with. In the fourth race I miss a bet. I’m waiting for 3/1 on Resonant, the favourite, but I can’t find it. I stand in the betting ring pondering 11/4, but I must stick to my principles – I truly believe in the concept of value betting. It wins like a good thing. As Ivan would say, a winner is a winner.
But the one thing that is lacking from the afternoon, from my perspective anyway, is the excitement. On the drive back down the lanes I start shouting at bicycles to get out the way, red lights to turn green, and fellow motorists to stop being such morons. My route home takes me past the college that I taught at for ten years, along roads that I have travelled thousands of times. I think back to my colleagues telling me when I was leaving that I would miss teaching and I would be back soon. Not yet.
But one thing does occur to me, my mind wondering whilst the driving part of my brain does the autopilot journey. It took me over ten years to start getting a bit bored of teaching, and it’s taken me lass than ten weeks to get a bit bored of horse racing. The powers that be in our sport need not worry too much at that shock revelation, as the people that they are trying to attract are unlikely to go racing five times a week, but it is slightly surprising to me. Of all the issues I have faced over the last two and a half months, and they have been many and varied, I never even considered this would be one of them.