In England, The Horses Go Up, Down and All Around : Not A One-Track Mind
King Edward VII probably had it about right. Once, after attending the races at his favorite track, the monarch observed wryly, “Racing at Goodwood is a garden party with racing tacked on.”
All English race meetings are not garden parties, of course, but horse racing in this country clearly is different from and more fun than its U.S. counterpart and, in fact, seems to be more a social gathering than a sports event. This, no doubt, is a carryover from its royal origins 300 years ago.
But what really sets English racing apart from the U.S. sport are the tracks themselves. This little country, which is no bigger than Florida, has 59 tracks, and no two are the same.
In the United States, tracks all tend to look alike. They are all oval and flat, and the horses always run in the same direction: counterclockwise. In the argot of racing, they are all left-handed. Oh, one may have a slightly longer stretch and another slightly sharper turns, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason why a horse shouldn’t be able to run as fast on one as another.
English tracks are like U.S. golf courses; conditions vary widely. Grass is the only thing they have in common. There are no dirt tracks. Most of the tracks are in the countryside in pastoral settings in or near small towns, and are reachable by train from London. They have names such as Ayr, Kelso, Hexham, Wetherby, Doncaster, Sandown, York, Chepstow, Newmarket, Newton Abbot, Leicester, Epsom and Ascot.
On these odd-shaped tracks--some are pear-shaped, others U-shaped or triangular, and some, like Goodwood, defy description--horses run uphill, downhill, clockwise and counterclockwise. On one track, Ascot, they sometimes race a mile without having to turn in any direction.
“The variety of our tracks is one of the delights of English racing,” said Laurie Brannan, deputy director of the Racing Information Bureau. “American tracks are a bit boring.”
Beside the unique tracks, which are generally privately owned, there are other major differences in the racing here. The average meeting lasts two days, and there is none longer than five. Some meetings last one day. Recently in one week, there was a two-day meeting at Goodwood on Monday and Tuesday, and a four-day meeting at Newmarket, Wednesday through Saturday.
There are only 15 days of racing in a year at Goodwood, two in May, two in June, five in July, two in August and four in September. The English flat racing season lasts from the third week in March until the first week in November and the National Hunt, or jumping, season from the end of July until the first week of June. Newmarket has 28 days of racing, far above average for a season. Newbury is the busiest track, but its 35 days include some jump meetings. All the meetings are spread out over several months.
There is a reason for the short meetings; the grass courses would not hold up for longer ones. Twenty-five days a season is about maximum, otherwise the turf will be damaged, said Lord March, owner of Goodwood.
Horses do not train on the tracks on which they race, mainly for the same reason. As a result, said Peter Willet, Goodwood’s director of racing, “They train all over the place.” Many train at special centers such as Newmarket, Lambourn and Epsom, and even there the gallops are changed constantly to protect the grass. After training somewhere in the countryside, the horses are taken by van to wherever they are racing that day and then returned.
This odd system makes it hard on jockeys and bettors. Jockeys, who normally ride for one stable, have hectic times getting from the training grounds, where they work in the mornings, to the tracks, where they race in the afternoons. When California jockey Darrel McHargue raced here in 1984, he said a typical day went like this: “Ride out at 7 a.m. and work on maybe two horses until 9. Read the Sporting Life (England’s equivalent of the Daily Racing Form), then work another horse at 10 until 11:30 or 12, then go racing.”
To go racing here, a jockey frequently must drive up to two hours from the training center to the track. That’s on the easy days. On a more hectic one, say for a race at Ayr, he will waste almost two hours just getting to Heathrow airport. Then he has an hour’s flight to Ayr and a taxi ride to the track.
The leading riders, such as Steve Cauthen and Lester Piggott, often race at two, or even three tracks a day, flying from one course to another. “That is a perfectly normal procedure,” said George Ennor, an English sportswriter.
With everybody off training alone, sometimes in areas so remote that observers are not posted to report on a horse’s condition, bettors have no idea how fast the animals they are backing are running. Even if a horse is training at a center where it can be clocked, bookmakers place little reliance on the stopwatch.
The English believe that race fans in the United States, where the tracks are similar and horses are trained at the track where they are racing, have stronger inducements to wager.
Most English horseplayers do not bet at the tracks and, in fact, never see a live race. There really isn’t any reason to when they can visit one of the 12,000 licensed betting shops in the country.
Better still, they can just telephone their favorite bookies and use a credit account. All the papers here carry complete race programs and more tips than you need.
What the papers don’t have, however, are the fitness of the contenders and their training times, items U.S. players take for granted. The betting shop player has only the previous public race time to guide him in his selection, and even those bettors who go to the tracks must learn to tell what a well-conditioned horse looks like, or cultivate inside sources who can.
At the tracks, most of the betting is done with independent licensed bookmakers, who travel from course to course and set up shop in front of the grandstand. There is little action at the government-sponsored tote windows, the English equivalent of pari-mutuel betting in the United States.
The odds are about the same, no matter where the bet is placed, but with the bookmakers, a horseplayer knows the price ahead of the race. At the windows, he must wait until all the bets are in.
“If you want to keep tabs on how your cash is flowing, you bet with the bookmakers,” one bettor said.
English races are as short as five furlongs and as long as 2 3/4 miles. Two-mile races are common.
Because of the odd shapes of the tracks, the commentary over the public-address system is the only clue spectators have of a long race’s progress. The call must be taken on faith, because not even binoculars can pick up the horses across the broad, green heaths at Goodwood and Newmarket. They appear as specks on the horizon an area code away.
Instead of claiming races, the English have what they call “selling races.” Such races are scheduled for what Irish breeder John Harty called low-quality claiming horses.
“Selling races are unique to England,” he said.
Immediately after a race, the winner must be auctioned off in the parade ring. Usually, winners are bought back by the owner.
While betting is the lifeblood of racing here, as it is in the United States, the tracks are barely surviving, Harty said. Asked if racing at Goodwood was economically viable, given the short season, Lord March smiled and said, “That’s a good question.”
The amount of money he gets from the betting, he said, “is negligible compared to what the tracks get in the United States. The biggest part of the handle goes through the bookmakers and we get no percentage of that.”
The bookmakers are taxed, however, and some of the levy is distributed among the tracks. The tote provides prize money, but most of the government funds go to help finance the administration of racing. Admissions, club memberships, concessions and commercial sponsors keep the tracks going.
“The tracks need them,” Harty said. “They put up the money for 9 of 10 major races.”
The famous English Derby, for example, was sponsored by Eveready Batteries. Even one of the large bookmakers, William Hill, sponsored a major stakes at Newmarket recently. Waterford Crystal and Paul Masson, the wine company, sponsor races at Goodwood.
English racing got into this predicament, Harty said, “Because it evolved naturally and historically. The industry is not served well because of it.”
Racing here is a different game, too, for a jockey such as Cauthen, who learned to ride on U.S. tracks as a teen-ager. Success did not come easily for the fellow from Walton, Ky., who at 25 has developed into the second-best jockey (after Piggott) in this country since he fled the colonies in 1979.
“I had to work damned hard to master the differences in America and England,” he told a London reporter after he had established himself here. “If you can win in England, you can win anywhere.”
Although Cauthen, who rode 487 winners as a 17-year-old apprentice in 1977, seldom races in the United States today, he has become an international star, riding in France, Italy, West Germany, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. When he returned to ride at Santa Anita last winter, he said it was “to keep fit for England.”
In his first year here, he rode 52 winners. In 1983, he won 102 despite a rib injury and 20 days of suspension. Then last year he became the first U.S. jockey in 71 years to win the English flat-racing championship by riding 130 winners. And last June 5, he became the first U.S. rider in 65 years to win the Epsom Derby. The race is 206 years old.
Normally, English jockeys do not have agents. The best ones ride for stables, earning a retainer fee for the season and collecting 7 1/2%--of all their winnings. Cauthen, however, has an agent to get him rides outside his stable.
It is a system, some believe, that does not produce a lot of good riders. If a jockey makes a mistake, he is likely to lose his stable. In the United States if a rider blows a race he might lose the horse but not the whole stable. McHargue, for one, doesn’t think the English system allows a jockey the freedom to develop his skills.
English horses are trained in groups so they learn to follow. “They don’t know what it’s like to run independently,” McHargue said on his return to Los Angeles after winning 37 races here. “I had to change my style to ride higher because the horses in England are trained to canter or gallop. You have to get up high enough to control them.”
The U.S. style is to be “a little bit shorter on the reins and a little bit more on the mouth,” McHargue said. “If you do that to an English horse, it will pull you out of the saddle.”
McHargue also found the English riders race a straight course virtually all the time. “You’re really not allowed to race wide,” he said. “If another horse passes you, he passes you. That’s it.”
Skill and riding styles aside, English racing has an edge on the brand at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. The spectators are more elegantly dressed, they leave less litter, behave more properly and when they snack, they nibble at kippers, fresh mussels, crab claws, pickled herring, prawns, salmon and jellied eels. What would the punters in the grandstands at California tracks think about that?
The most accommodating touch was seen at Newmarket. There’s a branch of Barclay’s Bank on the grounds.