Anne de Courcy

A canter through Britain’s racecourses

Nicholas Clee provides gripping stories of famous horses, jockeys and trainers, along with a history of racing itself and the best places to watch the spectacle

‘The Start of the Derby, 1844’, by Henry Thomas Alken. [Bridgeman Images]

Although it could hardly be less woke, the racing world is an excellent example of the diversity and inclusiveness we are all constantly urged to practise. Racecourses attract people of all classes, ages, creeds and economic status, some drawn by the spectacle, others by a love of horses or betting, and many just by the prospect of a good day out.

Nicholas Clee, a committed racegoer, clearly enjoys the latter, and has hit on the idea of taking us round the racecourses of Britain and Ireland. There are 59 in Britain and 26 in Ireland, most of which he has visited several times. En route we pick up stories of horses, jockeys, trainers, the history of the race itself and, often, the best place to watch the spectacle. This is a book for racing enthusiasts, whether course-goers or chairbound, of whom our late queen was the paramount exemplar. As her racing manager John Warren once said: ‘Every day of her life, she follows racing one way or another, when she can.’

Anyone who has felt the earth tremble as thundering hooves draw near Becher’s Brook will never forget it

The race everyone knows about is the Derby, possibly the most famous in the world, with a global audience reckoned at upwards of 250 million. Run over a mile and a half, it is for three-year-old colts and fillies (though the last filly entered was in 1998). It has often been more of a carnival than a race meeting, in Victorian times drawing people from all parts of the country for the sheer fun of it. There were gypsies telling fortunes, lords and ladies in their carriages, beggars, smart young bucks, flower girls, tricksters, pickpockets and Pearly Kings and Queens. As Clee puts it: ‘It was a jamboree with a horserace attached.’ Even today there are Romany women selling lucky white heather.

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