We meet in Browns by the riverside. A smattering of shiny, happy customers drink in the sun on the patio whilst I crouch in the shade and get down to the hard work* that is studying the form (* hard work in a not-very-hard, non-coal-mining kind of way). I shall be joined by no less than 7 companions for Windsor’s first evening meeting of the season, but for the moment I relish the early meditation, me and the Racing Post silently swapping thoughts in the seclusion of the form-lines.
As we cross the road for the short boat-hop to the racecourse, Clive discovers his car lights are flashing. The chap in the car park, who was ‘looking after the car’ in exchange for a £10 note (“He was wearing a badge!” protests Clive) looks non-plussed. Instead of issuing a proper ticket he simply put a piece of paper under the windscreen wipers that says ‘Jimmy Carr’. This is all very strange. Perhaps Clive’s car disapproves of being labeled as Jimmy, but I believe it is just upset about being ineptly slewed across two parking bays – clever, these modern cars.
We board the Bray Royale and are told by the ticket staff enthusiastically “There’s a bar downstairs!” Perhaps they’re on commission? We do them a favour if they are. I attempt an ambitious photo over the side of the boat and luckily avoid my son’s borrowed iPhone going the same way as mine down the “water damage” insurance route.
We disembark ten minutes later and deal out the online tickets. Free entry is an increasing and welcome trend amongst racecourses, but I’m sure they value the database of email addresses, and will probably make it back in beer sales tonight anyway. The thronging mass is diverse. I suspect a large percentage are new to racing, and this can only be good for Windsor and the sport in general.
Someone is singing and playing guitar (I think they’re allowed to) and the buzzing racegoers bask in the warmth of a sun-drenched April evening and drink lager to quench their thirst. The fish and chips van has the biggest queue I’ve seen at….well, the biggest queue I’ve ever seen, really.
My big fancy of the meeting, the Godolphin-owned Wild Storm in the third race, is nowhere near the forecasted price and I refuse to go in at long odds on. I’ve seen too many good things turn out to not be so good this last month. He wins of course, but I’m quite glad I didn’t make the bet, in a perverted sort of way. Clive questions this ideology, but he can’t park his car properly and hands £10 notes to strangers in car parks, so you have to take anything he says with a bucket of salt.
I am beginning to dislike bookmakers. In the fourth race Tommy Kiki has a non-runner available right up until the off. I wonder how many newbie punters here today will not realise Bushcraft isn’t racing and assume they just lost their money? And there’s a Russian sounding lady who doesn’t have a name above her board and issues change very slowly, possibly hoping that the punter will not realise it’s due and walk off with just the betting slip.
In the fifth race Arc Lighter is backed in from 4/1 to 2/1 favourite, not by us I hasten to add, but that must represent quite a weight of money. He is denied by an outsider called Carthage, and a Stewards Enquiry is called. The replay shows no hint of interference, so the only reason for the Enquiry must be because one of the stewards has had a hefty bet on the favourite. After ten minutes of deliberation, the placings remain unaltered as they have obviously decided that backing the 2nd horse is not a good enough reason to demote the winner.
The sun wanes to a milky horizon and my earlier chiding of Simon for bringing his coat comes back to haunt me. I have to buy some fish and chips, purely to keep warm you understand, and the queue has now disappeared. It’s all about timing. Pete is frozen to the spot, five yards in front of pitch 1 in the betting ring, and is peering at the boards in a mixture of concentration and puzzled alarm, like my ex-students looking at a whiteboard full of second order differential equations.
The trouble with the evening, as Nick describes on the way home, is that due to the configuration of the course and the sheer number of punters it was just about impossible to watch the action, other than on the giant screen. None of us even knew where the parade ring was, and the only inkling you had that you were witnessing a live sporting event was a flash of brown on the other side of the running rail every half an hour.
Perhaps I’m being too elitist – do people really care if they can’t see the horses in the flesh? Does the bingo winner mind if they haven’t seen the balls come out of the machine? There was a woman sat on the concrete steps scraping a scratchcard, and I pompously sneered at her for gambling on a racecourse! Was her £2 any more ill-spent than my each way on the 40/1 outsider? I don’t know, but I can’t help feeling that horses should be somewhere prominent in an evening at the races.
And so we return to the paradox that has been shadowing my journey so far: For horse racing to survive it needs to attract new punters, with free entry and pop concerts and festivals, but the more successful it is at that, the more the actual horse racing itself seems to get sidelined. If you’d told me 25 years ago when I began my punting education that I could bet on virtual horse racing from Steepledowns I’d have laughed you out of Ladbrokes, but now it’s as much a staple feature of the betting shop day as the fruit machines. Nick no longer takes his son to the 20:20 cricket since it’s transition from Saturday afternoon sport to Friday night booze-fest.
I’m at risk of sounding hypocritical, I know, given that I had a few drinks last night and didn’t even want to know where the paddock was. And I must point out that there was a good atmosphere at Windsor and a lot of people will have gone home happy with their evening. It’s a tricky balancing act, but if any racecourse is looking for a new chief executive to try and tread the fine line between tradition and evolution, I’m happy to give it a go.