Virtually everything that can be said of Hurst Park, unfortunately will be said about Kempton Park unless the Jockey Club have a sudden rush of commonsense.
Hurst Park was constructed on the site of ‘appy Hampton’ racecourse, a one meeting a year festival held on unclosed land in the early months of summer. As things were in the middle 1880’s the race meeting was a holiday for pickpockets and other local near-do-wells. Being unclosed meant the organisers could not charge its customers an entrance fee and being unable to raise a profit from the venture the proprietors could not afford to improve facilities or maintain the turf. Taking a dim view of such amateurish management the Jockey Club stopped issuing Hampton with fixtures causing it to close. I doubt if it were ever missed.
Someone with a sharp eye for potential must have recognised that the Hurst was very similar to the new and successful racecourse at Kempton and the Hurst Park Club Syndicate was born. Acquiring planning permission was quite straight-forward as the local inhabitants approved of the construction of the new racecourse as they viewed it as a far better alternative to the ‘jerry-builders’ getting their hands on ‘the Hurst’. As it is today with local residents preferring to save Kempton rather than have a new village foisted upon them.
The success of Sandown and Kempton had made the new ‘park racecourses’ in vogue and were the inspiration for Hurst Park, except the H.P.C.S. did not have enough land to really do the project justice. The first meeting, a jumping fixture, was on the 19th March – people could really get their skates on in those days – and did not draw a profit.
Because the course had no straight the Jockey Club would not license flat racing, so in the beginning during the fallow period of the jumps season pony racing was to be the attraction. But the course would not pay for itself, so additional land was purchased and a straight course of 7-furlongs added. Now racegoers came down from London on special trains and the course became popular and it attained a reputation as a ‘friendly racecourse’.
In 1913 Hurst Park became headline news when two suffragettes, Clare Giveen and the notorious Kitty Marion, set alight to the grandstand, leaving behind a banner with ‘Give Women the Franchise’ as their calling card.
Between the wars Hurst Park thrived and had at one point the newest photo-finish camera and up-to-date totalisators. It was well attended and being next to the river and in a parkland setting it was so picturesque it could have been parachuted in from ‘Three Men In A Boat’. Even in the 1960’s it remained both popular and profitable. But the racecourse proprietors had shareholders to keep happy and when the ‘jerry-builders’ came with their open cheque-books the sporting side of the business was given second consideration to the dividend of wads of cash and against the wishes of the locals sold the land for development, with the last race taking place on October 10th 1962.
At the subsequent auction Ascot bought a good deal of the turf for its new National Hunt course and Mansfield Town football club purchased the main grandstand. Altogether the bits and bobs of racing history sold for £10,000.
I have no recollection of Hurst Park as a live and relevant racecourse, except that the Triumph Hurdle began its existence there and that a young Lester Piggott won the race in 1954 on Prince Charlemagne. A few days earlier he had won his only race at the Cheltenham Festival on Mull Sack in a selling hurdle. How life has changed.
It is too easy to dismiss Hurst Park as a racecourse of no significance. But its similarity with Kempton does not end simply with being situated by the side of the Thames. The Victoria Cup began at Hurst Park and was won by such distinguished horses as Royal Minstrel, Honeyway and My Babu. The Henry 8th Stakes was also inaugurated at Hurst Park, as was The White Rose Stakes, the Winston Churchill Stakes, a race the great man won twice with Colonist in 1951 and High Hat in 1961. Sir Gordon Richards equalled Fred Archer’s long standing record of 246 winners in 1933. Even the National Hunt Chase was run at Hurst Park in 1891, 1896 and 1901.
At the first ever meeting the most valuable race of the day was won by Gamecock who had won the Grand National two years previously. Indeed the 1901 Derby winner Volodyovski won at the track, as did other such top class flat horses Tulyar, Supreme Court and Hornbeam. While the list of great jumpers who graced Hurst Park’s turf is seemingly endless. Golden Miller ran there on three occasions, winning on his first visit and then, beggaring belief, finishing only 3rd in a selling chase. Crudwell, Lochroe, Halloween, Team Spirit, Galloway Braes, E.S.B. and Devon Loch raced there and The Queen Mother’s ill-fated first horse Monaveen is actually buried close to where the old stable block used to be.
Hurst Park was not a backwater. It was not a Beaufort Hunt or a Keele Park. It was a proper racecourse that provided well-maintained turf and was considered a good and fair racecourse by both jockeys and trainers. Indeed everything that Kempton is now considered to be.
As I began; everything that can be said in memory of Hurst Park might one day be said in memory of Kempton.
In a recent e-mail to the editor of the Racing Post – he will not reply; he never replies, at least to me, and on the one occasion I was so honoured he had an underling ‘do the necessary’ on his behalf – I mentioned in passing that aside from the bloodstock pages all his columnists have one (or possible two) things in common. Of course I am referring to testicles. A situation that if it came to the notice of new suffragette movement that is currently sweeping all before it might bite the ‘sexist’ editor on the backside.
In our ever maddeningly equality conscious world, where the ‘best fit for the job’ might soon legally become secondary to ethnic, cultural or gender variety, the lack of a female columnist could lead to the Racing Post being had up before the Equal Opportunities Board. Questions might be asked in the House.
Some might claim that if the Post had a correspondent with a name like Aziz or Trehvon the sport would gain a greater following amongst British Asians and those of Caribbean descent. But that would be the folly of dreamers. The Post is an industry paper. The people who read it must have direct need for the paper. Also they must be able to afford the paper. Remember, Cheltenham will soon be upon us and as sure as Easter follows Christmas the cover price of the Post will rise by 10p.
If Aziz and Trehvon wrote for a tabloid newspaper then perhaps an upswell of cultural minority interest would occur. But the Racing Post is no ordinary commonplace newspaper; it is an industry paper and the editor has a duty to employ as its mouthpiece the best racing writers that can be afforded and without exception the current band of columnists are all outstandingly good.
Having a tight band of ‘outstandingly good’ columnists, though, does not justify the lack of a single female viewpoint. It is a criticism, I must admit, that could legitimately be levelled at all sectors of racing publication. Certainly all of the racing books in my collection are written by men. Yet I.T.V. and the Racing Channels employ any number of women and Clair Balding is still considered the doyen of racing presenters. Perhaps those women presently in front of the cameras can talk but not express themselves to the same extent in words. I don’t know and would hope to find out. Perhaps behind the scenes the Racing Post is nurturing female members of staff, in wait of the day when the contracts of its older columnists run out.
It is easy to trivialise this issue. In fact some may think it a non-issue. But I believe it is an oversight that needs to be speedily corrected as the Post could be accused of double standards. Along with every right-minded follower of the sport, the Racing Post is championing the emergence of Bryony Frost amongst the jockey ranks as ‘a breath of fresh air’. What stands her apart from her male colleagues is the ease in which she speaks of the horses she rides. There was not a shade of embarrassment in her when she referred to Black Corton as ‘Blackie’, talking about him as a trusted friend, as if he might simply be her childhood pony. Can you imagine Sam Twiston-Davies referring to Black Corton as ‘Blackie’?
Yet a similar ‘breath of fresh air’ is not to be found in the pages of the Racing Post. Which is bad form as one would imagine the readership of the paper is about equal amongst the sexes, yet the ratio of its scribblers is wildly swayed in favour of those who generally stand to do wee-wees.
I am currently ‘off games’ with this dreadful viral infection and for the past couple of days I have been unable to get hold of the Post and feel greatly worsened by its absence from my life. I suspect Mr.Millington – I have it in mind that he is a delicate hot-house flower easily bruised when touched by a cold hand – will confuse my observation for criticism. I hope not. Apart from wanting the cover price of the paper to go down, nothing would please me more than for the paper under his leadership to go from strength to strength. Letting a lady in the door can only help serve that cause.
1957 was a significant year for horse racing. Indeed I would go as far as to claim it is a year that should be celebrated with a race named after the year. The 1957 – chase, hurdle or flat race – might even become a notable race to win. But that is beside the point. Or at least my point, as I doubt many will agree with me.
It was in 1957 that Colonel W.H. Whitbread, a man who loved National Hunt, decided the best way to market his brewery would be to sponsor a horse race and on April 27th at Sandown the Whitbread Gold Cup was born, starting a quiet revolution within the sport that now runs at full bore. Who would have thought that such a revolutionary concept would lead to every major race outside of Royal Ascot bearing a sponsors’ name, with many old established titles disappearing. Incidentally, that first sponsored race was won by Much Obliged, as racing has been ever since for the prize money given by succeeding sponsors.
The following year Hennessey took on the idea and in the November of the same year Mandarin won, allowing the Hennessey family to pocket the majority of their sponsorship money.
Of all the sponsored races since 1957 the loss of the Whitbread and Hennessey is the most keenly felt, more so than any sponsor of the Grand National. In our memories the Whitbread remains on the calendar, with the handicap in April at Sandown still considered to be ‘that race that used to be the Whitbread’, even if it has declined in prestige and quality over the years. The Hennessey, or the Ladbroke Trophy as it now is, has held its prestige and will continue to do so, being considered the fourth or fifth top steeplechase of the season. Because of its position in the calendar I doubt if the Ladbroke Trophy will suffer in prestige as the old Whitbread has, though for perhaps a decade people will perhaps continue to think Hennessey rather than Ladbroke come the start of each new season.
As much as I decry, and mourn, the loss of ‘proper’ names for our big races, and wonder how they are referred to by racecourse executives when between sponsors – do they even exist? – only a fool would not extend the hand of friendship to those companies who could go to other sports but choose to market their brands through the sponsorship of racing.
The point I am trying to make is that our sport has a history, virtually all of it documented by talented writers through the centuries, that extends back to the 1700’s. What other sport can challenge such a lineage? To commemorate the Centenary of the formation of the National Hunt Committee in 1866 a history of the sport was commissioned to be written by four of the great writers of the sport – Michael Seth-Smith, Peter Willett, Roger Mortimer and John Lawrence. It is a great work of literature; a book everyone with an interest in National Hunt should have at least read if not actually own a copy.
It reads a bit like the Bible. In the beginning there was the Grand National. And that was it for a long while. Then the Cheltenham Gold Cup was begat, followed by the National Hunt Festival (only 3 days back then) and then the long shadow of commercialisation became the dominant force within the sport, with even the classics falling under the spell of companies great and small. Not that it matters about the classics, not really. Does anyone remember who sponsored the Grand National in 1975? Or do we go to Epsom to watch the Derby or the Investec Derby? What bothers me is that the history of the minor big races, the handicaps especially, becomes fragmented when sponsors demand that their name is more important than the name of the race they are sponsoring. We lost the Stewards Cup for a year, if you remember. We also lost the Bula Hurdle due to the arrogance of the betting company that hijacked the race. It was the Bula; it was a special race dedicated to a special horse. Why it couldn’t be the Paddy Power Bula Hurdle defeats me. So the Bula was lost, as in time was the Paddy Power, as in time the present sponsors name will go.
Beware Royal Ascot! Given the way the Cheltenham Festival has caved in to commercialisation we could lose a whole host of historic names. The Wokingham could become the Paddy Power Sprint. The Royal Hunt Cup the Bet 366 (or whatever their name is) Great Big Handicap. Once upon a time Lord Mildmay was commemorated at Cheltenham. There was a Grand Annual, the oldest race at the Festival. Once there was the Neptune and now it is the Ballymore. The World Hurdle has now reverted back to the Stayers Hurdle, as if the name of the premier staying hurdle is nothing but an irrelevance.
The history of our sport will forever become more and more confused. For historians it will be a minefield of easily made error. When a second volume of the ‘History of Steeplechasing’ is commissioned it will be notable for the separate index it will need to list all the different sponsors individual races have had over the decades. In John Lawrence’s day there was the Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup and the Mackeson. Since his day those two races alone have had numerous different names, with not one of them giving a hint as to what the race name would be if it were not sponsored. And that, I believe, does the sport a disservice.
This, I realise, is an unfair and an overly generalised statement, though in my limited and by now historical experience racehorse, trainers are either short tempered or downright eccentric to the point of madness.
What has stirred the memory is John Budden’s biography of the late, and I must say great, Gordon W. Richards. From no personal experience the master of Greystoke was always a favoured trainer of mine, as his son Nicky is nowadays. The W, by the way, stood for Waugh and was undreamed-of by his father who simply wanted to name his son in honour of the champion flat jockey Sir Gordon Richards. Of course when Gordon Richards the Jack Waugh apprentice first appeared at the weigh scales he was told he could not call himself Gordon Richards as it might cause confusion given that the champion jockey carried the same name. Someone suggested the initial W for Waugh and the legend that was to become Gordon W. Richards began.
‘The Boss’. The title of John Budden’s biography, is a trip down memory lane for someone of my vintage. Not only the names of G.W.R.’s good horses, Playlord, Titus Oates, Man Alive, Twin Oaks, The Grey Monk, Lord Greystoke, Noddy’s Ryde and so many others but rival horses such as Cockle Strand, Brawny Scot, Arcturus, Fearless Fred, What A Myth – the list is positively endless. And that is without listing the jockeys of the era.
The two aspects of G.W.R’s character that are emphasised in the book is his love and understanding of horses and the quickness of his temper when he thought one of his jockeys had either disobeyed orders or rode a poor race. He was never wrong, it seems, though he would listen to the thoughts of those around him. But his dictum in life was ‘doing the job his way’, a governing thought process learned from his apprenticeships with the flat trainer Jack Waugh and the trainer of Brown Jack, Ivor Anthony, two men that G.W.R. admired and respected.
It seems that in one way or another G.W.R. sacked every stable jockey he employed, including Ron Barry, perhaps the favourite of all his jockeys. It is significant, and reflects the respect he engendered, that at his funeral Ron Barry rode Better Times Ahead, one of Gordon’s last good horses, at the head of the cortege.
Although I say G.W.R. sacked his stable jockeys some claim it was just a natural parting of the waves, as when Neale Doughty took over from Ron Barry. And of course once he had ‘blown his top’, which occasionally, and some would claim unforgivably, could be in the unsaddling enclosure and in public view, he would never mention the ‘discretion’ again. Letting sleeping dogs lie was never a mantra close to his heart.
In defence of trainers they are in the difficult situation of being both the boss and the hired hand, their loyalties stretched in opposite directions. In one way you can say a trainer is only middle management, even the likes of Mullins, Elliot, Henderson and Nicholls, with owners dispensing likes, preferences and orders, which, to paraphrase the incomparable Sir Mark Prescott, 99% of his staff and horses are trying to make impossible to bring to fruition. Being a racehorse trainer must be one of the most stressful self-employed occupations there is. I used to question why top trainers employ so many assistants but without a team of underlings to delegate to the job would send a lone commander to the nearest asylum. Horses will injure themselves anyway they can; in their stable, in a paddock, walking down the road, whilst being shod, eating its food, and riders can aid and abet them by falling off, by allowing them to stand on a stone, by riding too close to a known kicker or bucker, by being run away with – again the list of possible calamity is endless. And to add to the stress and worry a trainer must be diplomatic with owners who appear without warning or who phone at inappropriate moments, often with ideas that go against sense or the long term well-being of their horse.
When a jockey riding an expensive horse, owned by someone (or a syndicate) who is giving grief on a daily basis to the trainer, is unseated at the last when ten lengths clear or is beaten in a photo-finish due in no small way to being squeezed on the run-in or because he made his effort too early or too late, someone I suppose will have to take what comes out of the fan. It must be as impossible as trying to whistle the national anthem whilst walking on shards of glass to take defeat with good grace when your business and future relies so heavily on winning races for owners who want a return on their ‘investment’. And if that is the name of the game for the top trainers, it must be as cutting as a racial slur for the trainer struggling with a dozen horses of limited ability to watch certain victory ripped from his or her grasp.
Racehorse trainers are the way they are for a reason. When you invest all of your finances, the future of your family, I would suggest, in a venture that though as close to the heart as family is at best like skating on thin ice, it must affect the mind when calamity small and large visits.
When next you are being told by a red-cheeked employer that you are ‘a useless addition to the human race’ smile and turn the other cheek and show pity and understanding as you might just be a sounding board to a man (or woman) staring into the abyss of financial disaster or mental disorder.
When Desert Orchid won the Gainsborough Handicap Chase (sponsored by Racecall) he gave 18lbs and ¾ length beating to Pegwell Bay. When he won the Victor Chandler Handicap Chase he gave 22lbs and a head beating to Panto Prince. When he won the Tingle Creek it was a handicap and he gave 20lbs to Jim Thorpe and beat him 12 lengths. When he won the Whitbread, strangely, Kildimo gave the great horse 1lb and yet the great horse out quickened him on the run in to win by 2 and a half lengths.
We are not talking about a time lost to memory but the 1887/88 season and the 88/89 season. 1989, of course, was when Desert Orchid won his most famous of victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But that was not about a great weight-carrying performance but guts and the determination to overcome all the adversities racing and the weather could throw at him – wrong racecourse, wrong-way round, wrong ground etc.
The very best chasers and hurdlers of the modern era very rarely ever run in handicaps and this I believe is to the detriment of the sport. Persian War won what is now known as the Betfair but was then the more evocatively titled Schweppes Hurdle – heaven only knows what the race is called when between sponsors. Can’t think we’ll ever see Buveur D’Air or Faugheen in such a race. And this is my point. Because the best hurdlers around could not beat him, at least not when Persian War was at his pomp, when receiving weight we have a fair idea where Persian War stands in the pecking order of great champion hurdlers. When champion hurdle winners only compete on level terms we have no real idea how they stand up against the true greats that went before them. See You Then won 3 Champion Hurdles but I don’t if he would get a mention in anyone’s top twenty hurdlers of all-time. 3 victories in simply quantity. It does not in itself warrant great accolades. Today, and this as much observation as criticism, horses are campaigned in order to win as much prize money for their wealthy owners, with no regard to discovering their limitations or place in the great Pantheon of the sport.
In the old days, perhaps the bad old days, the good horses were lumbered with weights in excess of 12st 7, even then they still occasionally won. These days top weight is invariably only 12st, the same weight as horses carry in the championship races. If Arkle had carried no more than 12st during his career he would doubtless have retired (apart from his final race when he broke a pedal-bone) unbeaten and no doubt unextended.
At the top end, we are creating a sport that is a charity to wealth by allowing more and more Grade 1 and Grade 2 races, when the sport would be better served by substituting these races with a sprinkling of high value limited handicaps throughout the season. One Grade 1 before Christmas should ensure the best horses take each other on, with a similar race in mid-season. The Christmas Hurdle at Kempton this year, and for many years since its introduction, is without spectacle. Anyone new to the sport on Boxing Day would not be in the least intrigued by 1/6 favourite cantering to a hollow victory over three inferior challengers. Easy money for the Henderson camp, yet it told the viewing public absolutely nothing but the horse was alive and kicking and did nothing for betting turnover.
The Betfair Chase, I believe, makes my point. Even a £1,000,000 bonus cannot persuade trainers to run their best horses in the race, and it is arguably the 3rd best 3-mile chase of the season. Surely if that £1,000,000 bonus included the Ladbroke Trophy and not the Betfair, with Newbury more likely to provide half-decent ground rather the Battle of the Somme variety that is the byword for racing at Haydock, we might, as in times gone by when the race was called the Hennessey, get some of the top chasers taking each other on in a handicap.
Once upon a time the horse was regarded as no more than a beast of burden, today we almost idolise them too much. The top horses are kept ‘fresh’ for Cheltenham, running only once or twice in Grade I’s that take very little winning and when they get injured, as is happening with annoying frequency at the moment, their potential unfulfilled, we are left unsure how good they really were. It is said Arkle’s rating is inflated and that he was not that much better, if at all, than the likes of Kauto Star, Denman and others, including Desert Orchid. Yet hand on heart could anyone say that Kauto could have given Denman 1st and beat him comprehensively? Arkle could give 2st and more to the best chasers around. The top horses of today are kept right away from races they might not win. Perhaps David Elsworth possesses a greater constitution than his contemporaries; he certainly made certain we all knew Desert Orchid’s limitations. And that was that he had none, not as a chaser.
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