Cheltenham Race Week starts tomorrow, I think. I live down the road from the course but I’ve never been there. I’m sure it’s a wonderful event and the town will be filled with a heady mix of racegoers looking for the full English Breakfast or even the full Irish, as many of them are from Ireland.
The bookies have a heyday and the streets start to fill with young women dressed as jockeys in a rather unseemly attempt at attracting business. Some of them have obviously never been near a horse and the horse would probably be thankful for that.
I write as someone experienced in a racecourse but not racing. When I was a student I had a job at the nearby Haydock Park Racecourse which is close to Wigan. I was a temporary assistant to the ground staff and a wonderful bunch of blokes they were. I was an extra pair of hands to aid in the picking up of litter after a meeting, not a great task as losing racegoers tend to rip up their betting slips into tiny pieces when they lose,and they lose a lot.
A more interesting task was helping build the fences between race meetings. We’d trundle off to Lord Derby’s estate down the East Lancs Road and cut bunches of birch trees, tie it up and load it onto the back of a trailer to be towed by a tractor. The area was awash with mosquitoes and horse flies, pedigree horse flies. We’d get bitten rotten all part from George Willie, one of the elderly guys who was part of the team. ” How do you do it George?” someone asked one morning. ” Easy, I spray myself with ‘flit flyspray’ before I leave the house, and if any of them land on me they die on contact”. None of us fancied doing the same, ‘flit’ being the near equivalent of nerve gas.
After we’d got a complete load we headed back to the course, I was put on top of the load with a red flag to warn approaching traffic. Health and safety was not the consideration it is today. I was certainly a little nervous but a couple of cigarettes on the journey back calmed my nerves atop this natural bonfire.
The day before the races the horses used to arrive, with tiny jockeys who’d be invisible on the streets of Cheltenham. Lester Piggot, an famously unpopular jockey with the staff, used to arrive by plane and land in the middle of the course. We were charged with putting down white sheets to help his pilot land. Some of the staff were tempted to move them nearer the trees to make his landing a little more interesting.
Stable boys and some girl would look after the horses, and well I remember when one of them said to me, “Put your wages on my horse, sure fire winner”. I’d never bet before in my life but this was a chance not to miss: an inside tip! So I placed my bet.
This was in the days when they started the race at a rope across the course, a messy affair, and my race was no exception. My horse started fast and was probably quicker than any of the others, unfortunately it was going in exactly the opposite direction and there was nothing the hapless tiny person on board could do about it.
I’ve never bet on a horse since.
The drawing is a near finished version of a series on Sports Nuts.