I catch a few broken hours of sleep as it begins to get light. I know it was a small fire in a skip next to the hotel, and not a big fire in the hotel itself, but for some reason it affected me. Outside my door is a photocopied message from the manager apologising for the early-hour shenanigans – it’s a nice touch. The breakfast is poor, but at least I can have unlimited coffee, and I need to because I have a big morning ahead of me.
Clive has set me up with one of his ex-colleagues now working in Newcastle (in a purely professional sense, you understand) and I arrive bang on time to be interviewed by BBC Radio. I’ve interviewed quite a few people myself before and during my journey, but this is the first where I shall be the subject. I’ve never quite known how to pitch this adventure, and have actively baulked at it becoming a media circus because I feel it would somehow lose the purity of the project. However, I would like to sell some books at the end of this and so have made some grudging nods to marketing.
I’m not sure the caffeine is working – just when I need to be at my most sparkling and positive about this ludicrous venture, I am feeling the most tired and homesick I have so far been. I can hide a little bit behind the black and white, manufactured words of a blog, but I fear that the immediacy of live radio shall not be so forgiving. I am ushered into the studio and suddenly I’m on air with the very cheery and encouraging Anna.
“Pleased to meet you Neil, thanks for coming in! We’ll just have a chat about why you’re doing this, you crazy person, and I of course will get as many horse puns in as I can!”
I feel like I’ve just sat down in an exam and been told I have been following the wrong syllabus. I had been revising all morning about the worst hog roast and the best performance by a 3 year old gelding after returning from an absence of more than 200 days, and now realise I should have been swotting up on racing puns.
“Are you in a stable relationship?” quips Anna, and later “well good luck at the racecourse this afternoon, it’s not far from here so you should find it neigh bother!”
She’s really got the bit between her teeth now with the puns, but I don’t think to say that. I’m not sure I’m cut out for radio. Or speaking really, after a broken night’s sleep following hot on the heels of a three day jolly with Simon, but at least I’m entering the final furlong now. Sorry, I’ll stop. My 15 minutes of fame are over in a flash and I’m escorted from the premises, wondering if I made any sense whatsoever. I catch up with Jason on the phone, who says not to worry as the Geordie listeners wouldn’t have understood a word I was saying anyway, due to my softie-southerner accent. Good point.
I catch a taxi to the course and am amazed by the entrance. Newcastle racecourse seems like a grand hotel from the outside, and they are happy to keep my luggage behind reception so I don’t have to trail it around like some vagrant, as at Redcar yesterday. These are possibly the most spacious facilities I have encountered so far, and again I think back to my beloved Cheltenham and how claustrophobic that felt on Day 1 of my quest – admittedly they had 70,000 on Gold Cup Day, and I doubt Newcastle has 1% of that total today, but perhaps that should tell them something.
I am very early again, and wallow around in virtually empty halls getting the lie of the land. The beer is good and the food is pretty good. If you get the chance, buy a Premier ticket and head upstairs to a cocktail bar with a laid-back vibe, which affords tremendous views from its own terrace. Big round tables with white tablecloths encourage people to sit and talk to each other, and because you are not competing for a beer or your personal space, you stop fighting and start fraternising.
I believe this is the one most important challenge that horse racing has to tackle – how does it attract 1 million new customers a year without it seeming even more like a bunfight on some of the days? You can tinker all you like with prize money and horse populations, field sizes and fixtures lists, but punters won’t want to come back if they feel harried, bullied or exploited.
The paddock is in front of the stands just by the winning post, and I think of Market Rasen (which I nominated as my favourite course so far when put on the spot by Anna this morning) which has exactly the same configuration. This is a compromise – if you put the paddock there you can’t fit in 1000 more vertical drinkers by the course, but in my opinion it is the little things like this that add up to making a big difference. It is raining, and without the luxury of being able to watch them parade and return to the winners’ enclosure from the shelter of the stand, you would get a disconnect which would be detrimental to the day.
But if Paul 2 was surprised at the demographic at Epsom, he would be aghast at the average age at Newcastle. Okay, it is a wet Tuesday afternoon, but I would hazard a guess that the horses may just about outnumber the punters, and there is certainly a higher proportion of greys in the audience than on the course. I have really loved this place and would love to come back to the city and the racecourse in the future, but my good betting run has come to an end. That’s alright, though, because I’m going home to my family and that feeling really is priceless.