Racing at Cartmel probably began in the 15th century when Brother John wagered a mug of ale with Brother Cain at Cartmel Priory that his mule could give his fellow monk two lengths start and beat him back to the Abbot’s orchard. Nowadays Cartmel is one of racing’s precious smaller jewels. The tiny track nestled in a Cumbrian valley and reached by a tangle of winding country lanes not only attracts jump racing crowds of up to 20,000 (only Cheltenham and Aintree do better) but it also gives them an experience not to be found anywhere else.
There’s nothing grand about Cartmel: as its owner, Baron Cavendish of Furness, once drove the late Queen Elizabeth past, she exclaimed with incredulity: ‘You call that a racecourse!’ Where else would the racecourse commentary declare: ‘And as they pass the Sticky Toffee Pudding Shop Brian Hughes moves into the lead.’ (The connections of all placed horses get a pudding along with their prize money.)
Winning owners don’t go home from Cartmel seriously enriched. It stages no Hennessy Gold Cups or Triumph Hurdles. But as Lord Cavendish notes: ‘Jump racing isn’t about money, it’s about love.’ The gatemen wear pink T-shirts, blue vests, flat caps and cheerful smiles. Nobody goes to Cartmel to be seen; they go there to enjoy themselves. It is part carnival and funfair, partly the biggest collection of picnics you’ve ever seen – right up to the winners’ enclosure. Some racetracks frown on barbecues and people bringing in their own food and drink. Not relaxed Cartmel. Most racecourses ban or discourage dogs; at Cartmel you cannot move three steps without encountering a furry friend. I felt half-undressed without my flatcoat retriever.
I’ve spent time on tracks with trainers, owners and jockeys, but never before with a racecourse owner.