Before I started this lunacy I gathered my closest friends to tell them what I was doing. It took on the guise of an informal planning meeting as I wanted their strategic input and inspired ideas – I wanted them, but of course never got any, and as the evening wore on their contributions grew more silly as the beers went down. Some of the suggestions were so inappropriate that they cannot be aired on this website before the watershed, and the pinnacle of their achievements came when one of the assembled clowns (luckily I forgot who by this point) came up with the genius suggestion of taking a toaster to Towcester.
This idea was so well received that we tried to extend it into a countrywide theme of taking an appropriately-named household appliance to all the racecourses. We got as far as taking a boiler to Worcester and a bath to Bath, before getting tired of our joke. This whole line of thought may have been inspired by Tony Hawks taking a fridge around Ireland, but he only took a small fridge and a bath is a whole different ball game.
Anyhow, when I arrive at the Northamptonshire venue I find a large and toaster-less crowd relaxing in the evening sun. I had forgotten that it is free entry and therefore ticketless again, so I begin the usual wild goose chase of trying to secure a piece of cardboard that says “I was here!” I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t started collecting my tickets and badges because I spent 20 minutes on the phone to Haydock this morning discussing audit trails. However, the staff at Towcester are enthusiastic and find me a hospitality badge. “But it’s not valid for today!” they add before I get any clever ideas.
Towcester really is a Jekyll and Hyde character. The positives include that there is plenty of space even on a sunny May evening offering free entry. The grandstands are roomy and there are nice touches throughout – a tent has been erected out the back and filled with tables, chairs, TVs and old people, and off to the side there is a grassy area where two small football goals have been placed on mown grass for the Dads to take the kids in between races.
However (and I know I’m beginning to sound like a cracked record here), unless I’m missing something there is one bar and one burger van to service the entire main enclosure. It doesn’t seem particularly like a ‘drinking crowd’ but the sheer numbers result in a six-deep melee at the understaffed bar. Surely Towcester has implemented free entry in order to try and increase numbers – why would they not want to sell more food and drink?
The other problem is the course itself – a large loop with a stiff uphill finish. I want to really like it as another fine example of the individuality of British racecourses in a beautiful setting, but they’ve built a greyhound track on a raised mound in the middle just the other side of the finishing post. The problem isn’t so much that you lose sight of the runners on the far side (plenty of tracks suffer a similar issue), but the thing just seems so incongruous and overbearing. To me greyhound racing suggests the bright lights and clamour of the city, not a Northamptonshire country estate.
Owner Lord Hesketh, boss of the 1970s Formula 1 team and a colourful character by all accounts, added the greyhound track last year in an effort to secure the future of the operation, saying “If this place is going to survive and prosper, it’s going to have to operate for more than 17 days a year.” His vision is not only a boost for the local economy (creating 80 new jobs) but for greyhound racing as a whole, which has suffered some big-name closures over the last decade. It’s certainly a welcome alternative to a pop concert or car boot sale, and I like going to the dogs.
My only problem with the otherwise eminently sensible idea is the siting of the dog track. I understand it needs to be in front of the main stand, but couldn’t it have been just a little lower to be slightly less obtrusive? It somehow sends the message that the horse racing you are watching is not enough on it’s own. In my opinion, it distracts the attention and drains the atmosphere, like watching a football match in the middle of an athletics track.
Returning to the equine from the canine, the lessons to be learnt from the horses this evening are that the Henderson ones seem to be in better form than the Pipe ones. I think I’ve backed a Pipe winner in the second when the unusually named Susie Sheep nips ahead of the labouring Henderson-trained What A Jewel, who then rallies to see it out. The Henderson dominance is confirmed in the last race when his Divine Spear upsets the Pipe favourite. They are finishing tired up the fearsome climb to the line, as indeed I am with a little over two weeks to go until I complete my venture, but with a little encouragement the summit can be reached.