Odd what grabs the attention, isn’t it? With the many and varied storylines generated by the expectation and anticipation of the Cheltenham Festival, the flat season hesitantly and with an apparent awkwardness preparing to peak out from behind the curtains of spring, and the race of the highest distinction in the world, the Grand National, on the horizon, ‘copy’ is easy to come by for both the professional and hobbyist racing buff. Yet in idly perusing the ‘Racing Review’ of 1952 the fixture list for that year demanded my attention.
The year began as it does in modern times with a meeting at Cheltenham, as well as a two-day fixture at Manchester. In January there were also two day meetings at Birmingham, Hurst Park and Wolverhampton. You may suggest that the last named is the odd one out from the preceding three racecourses but I would argue that here we are talking National Hunt and in that sphere Wolverhampton is definitely lost to us.
Where racing differs from I think all other sporting activities is that our every day is published in the daily newspapers and our history documented in records that go back to the days of supreme monarchy. The result of a six-furlong seller at Nottingham in June 1952 could easily bear some reflection on the breeding and racing of horses today. The race-meetings today form a link that travels back to that significant day of Saturday 11th of August, 1711 when ‘The Queen, with a brilliant suite, drove over from Windsor Castle to Ascott Common … to inaugurate Ascott races and attended Ascott again on the following Monday … Her majesty proceeded along the common with her long train of courtiers and other attendants.’ The monarch, of course was Queen Anne. Jonathan Swift, apparently, didn’t approve. He was staying at Windsor Castle at the time and perhaps the disappointment of the Queen preferring the racing of horses to his company kick-started the premise of a race of horses governed solely by reason that became the fourth part of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.
Indeed we can even list the runners for the fifty guinea plate run that day: Doctor, Have-at-all, Teague, Dimple, Flint, Grey Jack, and Grim.
But that was then. Today we concentrate on 1952. A year so long ago that at its start Great Britain was reigned over by a King and even myself was not yet born.
The first surprise to me is the number of two day fixtures in January. Manchester, Leicester, Lingfield Park, Birmingham, Hurst Park, Sandown Park, Wolverhampton, Newbury, Kempton Park. Two-day fixtures are a hobby-horse of mine as a previous piece on this site will enlighten the reader.
The Cheltenham Festival of 1952 was held on the 4th, 5th and 6th of March, a date I believe better suited to today, allowing a greater amount of recovery time till the Grand National. On the 10th there was a meeting at Wye and on the 20th Woore staged a meeting. I must look up where in the country Woore is or was situated.
The Grand National meeting was on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th of April, four days that incorporated some flat racing. As we all know both Lester Piggott and Red Rum were successful on the flat during a Grand National meeting. I wonder if Lester secretly wished to emulate his father and ride in the great race. Red Rum certainly became fascinated with the place. On the 14th of April there was a meeting arranged for the West Norfolk Hunt. Is this now Fakenham? Toward the end of April there were also meetings at Beaufort Hunt, Rothbury, Wye, Bogside and the recently abandoned-to-its-fate Folkestone.
The big surprise to me is that summer jumping is nothing new. In 1952 there were 8 meetings in June, though National Hunt was absent in July. Buckfastleigh staged meetings in May, June and August, with the season starting in the old traditional way at Newton Abbot. Indeed the first ten meetings were all in Devon.
What also caught my eye for National Hunt in 1952 was that Liverpool had a four-day fixture in November and there was no racing between December 22 and Boxing Day (wouldn’t racing staff and bookmaker employees love that break to be reintroduced) and only 6 meetings on Boxing Day itself.
Flat racing raised its head on March 24th with a three-day fixture at Lincoln. On the 31st there was a meeting at Alexandra Park, perhaps the most missed flat course due to it being located only 8-miles from Piccadilly Circus.
Indeed if you look down the flat fixture list of 1952 what takes the eye and curls the lip is that where National Hunt has lost a whole raft of courses, with few exceptions the names of flat courses can still be found in this year’s fixture list. As well as Ally Pally, and the dual-purpose courses like Manchester, Hurst Park and Birmingham, Lanark is gone, as is Stockton, Lewes, and Worcester, though now highly popular as a summer jump course, was essentially a flat course back then.
The Derby, incidentally, was run in May, with Royal Ascot not until June 17th onward. A three-week interlude that would be advisable today.
There is an element of ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ and ‘O! call back yesterday, bid time return’ when comparing what went before with the problems of today. Racing is doubtless many times a better ordered sport than in 1952. It is certainly no longer a preserve of the landed gentry and jockeys and stable staff are no longer summoned by use of a surname. People are all treated as, if not exact equals, as humans and everyone is expected to be humane. Though the occasionally doping ‘scandal’ still comes to light, usually of an accidental nature, in the main racing is straighter than in times past and jockeys ride fairer, with no leg-pulling to unbalance an opponent or deliberate impeding. In 1952 such incidents were still considered as an art of race-riding.
We can though learn from the past. In 1952, though still emerging from the ravages and deprivation of war (Newbury for instance still remained closed) and with the future of many racecourses imperilled by it, the fixture list had structure about it. Southwell did not race on the same day as Wolverhampton. There was a complimentary divide between north, south, east and west and the two-day meetings meant less travelling for jockeys and trainers. The fixture list for 2017 is a rag-bag affair, a willy-nilly composition that lacks common sense and an overarching approach. The fixture list needs an overhaul, perhaps a root and branch overall, with a good dose of common sense applied to it. Having meetings at Southwell and Wolverhampton on the same day is silly. As is any clash between neighbouring courses. Someone needs to get a grip and consult the list of 1952.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.