There is a feeling of going back to the beginning. On the drive up to Newmarket I pass within 400 yards of the house where I was born and grew up, the garden where I learnt to ride a bike and the fields and woods where I used to play manhunt, the signposts to my old schools and the pitches where I played my club football. In this part of the world the skies go on forever and whenever I go back I get a sense of space that I feel nowhere else in the world
I am transported back to the time-rich summer of 1990 when I called this place home and the extent of my world was the drive into town on a Friday evening. It was the last summer before everything changed forever, when my cohort was flung to the four corners of this island and I would begin the journey of calling other places home.
I decided I was going to find the perfect horse racing system and analysed for weeks the selection box of the Sporting Life, looking for significant results when various combinations of tipsters concurred. My patient and dutiful mother then spent a week nipping to the local bookies to place £1 bets on her underage son’s behalf to test the new system for real. Needless to say the method, which if I remember correctly involved backing any horse selected by all three of the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and Form tipsters, didn’t preempt my requirement to go to university in the autumn and study for a proper career.
That was the year Timeless Times won an astonishing 15 races, mostly over 5 and 6 furlongs and occasionally on consecutive days. He was as close as I have ever seen to printing money in the equine world. I think that was also the same summer that my uncle took me to my first meeting at Newmarket. As I remember, we didn’t have a winner between us, but the flame was lit by then and could not be extinguished by one unsuccessful evening.
I pick up Luke en route, an old friend who has recently returned to the area with his family. I could write an entire book on the silly japes we got up to at school, but my favourite has to be the routine we performed every time a supply teacher was unfortunate enough to be assigned to our French class. Luke would pretend to faint, and three of us would manhandle him outside as he lay limp in our arms, with textbooks and pencil cases sluicing to the floor as his lifeless limbs drooled over desks on the way out.
As we shuffled out crab-like between disheveled chairs, we would cheerily claim that this was totally normal and he just needed some fresh air to revive himself. Once outside, we would all sit giggling on a bench for five minutes before returning to the classroom to dream up some other nonsense. Luke deserved an Oscar for his impeccable performances, or at least greater recognition than he received from the often-indifferent supply teachers.
Those shenanigans are not reproduced today, and even if Luke did faint I’m not sure I could carry him on my own anyway, not with my bad back. Time catches up with you eventually, as indeed it did by the end of 1990 for the ironically-named Timeless Times – the cashpoint machine ran out of money and he never won again.
Yellow signs direct us around three sides of an unnecessary square to the racecourse entrance. It’s a convoluted route, but it does at least take in a vast array of different stables and you get a sense of the domination this industry holds over the Suffolk town. It isn’t called Headquarters for nothing.
The place is busy, but not oppressively so, and there are a vast number of different stalls for food where you can get a decent variety of offerings. Perhaps the Around The World street market theme was transferred at the last minute from Sedgefield to Newmarket? We choose the burrito, which is fairly good, and a welcome diversion from the standard fare of the last two months. There is a buzzing atmosphere in the build up to the first Classic of the season, the 2000 Guineas.
We get chatting and realise we are too late to bet as the next race is off. Somehow though, Luke has found a bookmaker who will still accept his bet, as well as him changing his mind to Second Step at the last second, and (this is the bit I really can’t fathom) deliberately pays him out more than he should saying “get yourself a drink!” I too should have been on at 7/1 in a four-horse race, but that’s the swings and roundabouts of racing, and I cheer him on as he overhauls another disappointing odds-on favourite in the dying strides.
Now it’s the Guineas, and we watch them circling the paddock. Luke likes Glenalmond because he’s looking feisty in the paddock, as though he wants to start a punch-up at the pre-fight weigh-in. I think Celestial Path and Kool Kompany both look very well, but this is trying to short-cut the form studying which I haven’t managed to fit in. Luke says I must be an expert by now, but I explain that bizarrely I have done less analysis this last couple of months than I normally do.
We get our bets on and secure a space in the stands. Neither of us knows what the sponsor Qipco does. A computer generated fantasy version of the 2000 Guinneas plays out on the big screen, containing old favourites from down the years. This confuses some in the crowd who think the actual race is off and feverishly scan their racecards because they didn’t know Frankel was running again this year. Then the real race is off and it makes a better spectacle than the virtual one. In hindsight, the easy-to-back favourite Gleneagles is the best horse in the race and proves it, but the Racing Post doesn’t have a 100% successful tipster called In Hindsight.
On the journey back I catch a glimpse of my uncle’s house, which again prompts the fond memories to come flooding back. I am going home to my wife and boys, but somehow this place will always seem a bit like home, irrespective of where I choose to live my life.