Newbury

The world is an amazing place. If you ask enough times, it can open itself up to you like a blossoming flower, and offer you untold possibilities. Yesterday was a shining example. I had emailed Julian Thick, CEO of Newbury Racecourse, to see if he would talk to me. I was interested in his role running a racecourse that had such a long and distinguished history, and one that had remained proudly independent in an age of racecourse conglomeration.

No problem, he said, and offered half an hour of his time freely and willingly as though my weird project was in some way worthwhile. Racing people are generous, but this was extreme generosity. I called up to Communications Director Andy Clifton when I arrived and we walked up to the Royal Box. Yes, I was in the Royal Box at Newbury.

As I entered, there was a mini, in more than one sense of the word, drama playing out from the panoramic window. Some very little children were enjoying the rare privilege of standing on the course at the finishing post as some advertising hoardings from the sponsors were being blown over in the fierce gusting wind just yards away from them. A calm call from the boss and calamity was averted for the next generation of horse racing devotees.

As it turned out, the half hour was more than an hour and I savoured every minute. Both from true honest stock, Julian and Andy seem as appreciative as I am at the opportunities afforded us. The full and frank discussion that followed on matters Newbury and lots else besides shall have to be properly dissected at some future point. But suffice to say that I left the Royal Box feeling that Newbury Racecourse in particular, and horse racing in general, was in the hands of good people who know and love the sport as I do.

The view from The Royal Box

The view from The Royal Box

I met an old friend before the first race. Jim had spent several years with me at Exeter University. It would be fair to say that we were both disaffected Economists who struggled with the inanity of the course. One particularly memorable nadir was the endless blackboard-rotating absurdity of the Neyman-Pearson Lemma (no, I don’t know what it is or does either).

It must be nearly 25 years since I saw this guy, yet the time rolls away in a warm handshake and I realise we are essentially the same, just slightly larger versions of our old selves. It seems absurd to try and catch up on personal news over a quarter of a century, so we start chatting about racing and my journey so far. Almost immediately Ivan appears and I introduce him to Jim as the guy who taught me how to teach, 18 years ago.

“Didn’t do a very good job, did I?” Ivan offers.

“Well, knowing him 25 years ago,” Jim replies “if you got him to teach for almost 20 years I think you did a very good job!”

And with that two strangers bond by gently taking the piss out of the common link, and the afternoon unfolds before us like a sepia tablecloth. Andy had kindly given me a tip for the first race which wins nicely and we retire to the bar.

Ivan is not impressed by the only ale on offer being Doom Bar. He has his funny ways, and I like most of them, but I’m a fan of Doom Bar, and used to holiday near the then tiny brewery in Cornwall, so challenge him. “Is it because it’s taken over the world?”

“It’s exactly that!” says Ivan, before struggling to find the right word for its astonishing growth and domination of bars across the land. “Ubiquitous” Jim suggests, and we agree on that, and cleverly thread the word back into strands of conversation throughout the afternoon.

After a good start with the betting I again fail to ‘train on’ through the card. Some weary selections find one too good into the fierce headwind down the long home straight. Ivan insists we go to a different bar to try some proper ale by the name of Barman’s Armpit or something similar. It’s okay, but I prefer the Doom Bar.

Jim has to go to work. He says he does 60,000 miles a year and had a back operation a while ago because of it. I’m staggered by this figure. My trip computer has racked up 1,200 in two weeks, and I’m beginning to get bored with the roads. 23 years is a yawning chasm to overcome, but we did pretty well with the backdrop of a day at the races to guide us.

New friends. Old friends. Ones you see regularly. Some you haven’t seen in a generation. Somehow it doesn’t matter. Racing gives a flow to proceedings that enables easiness. In two months time I may well not want to see another racecourse for a while, but I will struggle to replicate the proforma it gives for a good get-together.

Ivan and I back another loser before heading to a pub he knows near the station. We plan out a campaign of when he will be joining me. I was going to drive to Bath on 13 May, but perhaps not any more. For some reason we get talking about Shirley Williams. I can’t remember why now. Some new ales amuse us, and they are better than the Armpit.