I know what you’re thinking. Market Rasen wasn’t meant to be this early in the schedule? Yes, I was thinking that too, but then the Ffos Las farce occurred and things had to be juggled. Still, better for it to go wrong early?
So a long day behind the wheel was promised as I went from Bangor in Wales across the country to Market Rasen in the East, and then home. As the M6 seeped seamlessly into the M62 a sign warned “Bumpy Road”. How prophetic this was for my journey later that evening.
Paul asked me a few days ago whether it yet seemed more like work than pleasure. No, I replied, it seems like I’m going racing again! That was the case up until about 6pm last night when the motorways conspired against me and I fought a valiant but losing battle to get home in time for dinner with my family without running out of fuel.
Market Rasen racecourse was the one redeeming feature in the 8 hours of driving that day. I parked easily, next to a small guy faffing in his boot. Perhaps a cameraman sorting equipment, I thought, as I leapt from the car and dashed to the entrance. As I was paying, Tom Scudamore, of faffing-in-boot fame, was suddenly behind me and being ushered through. I kicked myself for being too hasty and missing a prestigious scoop – a brief chat or even full-on interview with a top jockey.
I rifled through the paper to find he had only one ride all afternoon, for the in-form trainer Nigel Hawke in the fifth race. Second in the jump jockeys championship, Scudamore had come all the way to Lincolnshire for this ride, and the Racing Post forecasted his mount Mister Wiseman a 10/1 outsider of the sextet. A closer inspection of the form could not dissuade me – the horse had travelled even further to be here, 251 miles from Devon, and had won at the course five times. It had run poorly on the last two occasions on softish ground, but had slipped down the weights as a result and was now back on a better surface.
The biggest prize on offer at the course was £5,198. That would pay the training fees for a few months, but not that many months. The fact of the matter is that you don’t own a racehorse to become rich. Much has been made in the media over the last month, especially in the run-up to the Festival, about prize money levels at the top of the sport. This is a devilishly knotted rope to untangle, with many different strands.
The Jockey Club owns Cheltenham along with 14 other tracks, including Market Rasen. It runs as a trust with no shareholders, and its profits are reinvested into the sport. The criticism in some quarters is that the £10 million profit from Cheltenham each year should go towards boosting prize money for the biggest events, not propping up the smaller courses. I disagree. I feel that the lesser grade racing I have seen over the last few days is essential if the sport is to remain healthy from grassroots level upwards.
I climbed an almost deserted stand to survey the scene, and what a scene it was. Market Rasen was bathed in a warm, clear light with simply wonderful views over the whole course. All three enclosures sit together without conflict, tidy and well catered for. Facilities were spacious and sparkling, the bookmakers ring lively and friendly, and the paddock (which I was deliberately avoiding today after the fiasco at Bangor) couldn’t have been more handily placed. I know this seems a bit soppy, but everyone seemed genuinely happy to be here on a fine Sunday afternoon whether they were winning or losing. If you get the chance, give it a go.
The second race, a handicap hurdle, was interesting. Ivans Back gamely stayed on after the last, but seemed to be tiring on the long run in. At this point a lady with silver hair came screaming from behind me towards the finishing straight. She had her arms aloft, galloping like a lunatic performing a rain-dance, and was making a guttural noise that came from somewhere deep in her soul. The gist of it seemed to be that she really, really wanted the leader to keep going.
Alarmed racegoers parted quickly, worried they would be mown down should the lady attempt to hurdle the running rail and literally carry her horse over the line. It wasn’t required. Ivans Back held on by a length to win at 15/2. Everybody enjoyed the spectacle, and it transpired that the lady was the owner. If you want an advert for racehorse ownership, at whatever level, it was right there.
By the time the fifth race arrived two things had transpired. Firstly, I was badly in need of a winner. Secondly, Mister Wiseman was priced up the 3/1 second favourite, nowhere near the generous 10/1 suggested in the paper. It seems I wasn’t the only one to spot that the Wiseman had travelled far. I dived in at 100/30 and he won well. And again I left before the last race in profit for the fourth meeting in a row.
If you forgive the fact that the horses are not the fastest in the land, I’m not sure you can ask for much more from a day’s racing. They are all superstars to somebody. I had a warm glow on my 4-hour drive home, at least until I hit the M1 anyway. And therein lies its only problem. Market Rasen is not very easy to get to, or indeed get back from, as my journey attested. If this fine racecourse survives because of it’s place within the Jockey Club family, then this can surely only be a good thing for racing as a whole.