out in sticks
Worcester Racecourse may have drawn stumps on its racing programme for another summer, but Chris Pitt’s latest work brings the preceding three centuries of action at the Pitchcroft sparking to life, Jeremy Grayson writes.
Jeremy Grayson reviews Chris Pitt’s book onWorcester Racecourse
The project to commit Worcester Racecourse’s history to print could have been taken on by one of two people and been in entirely safe hands with either.
In the event, while the pasts of five other present-day Arena Racing Company courses have already been excellently covered by Jim Beavis, it is Midlands Racing Club founder Chris Pitt, author, of course, of A Long Time Gone and
Go Down To The Beaten among others, who has brought Pitchcroft’s three long and eventful centuries to life in a work released in time for the course’s 300th anniversary and has done so with all of his typical thoroughness, skill and charm.
A Battle Ground in Several Senses
In fairness, the above should have read the course’s purported 300th anniversary, for while Charles II might well have raced on the common ground of the Pitchcroft when not otherwise engaged in battle there against the New Model Army (in the last act of the English Civil War), no definitive evidence to that effect exists. Instead, a reference in Berrow’s Worcester Jour- nal of June 20th 1718 to a not uncommon format for those days of a trio of two-mile Flat heats between the same pair of competitors gives Worcester’s timeline of racing its de facto start date. Not that battles on Pitchcroft were solely limited to those on horseback thereafter, however, as perhaps most graphically evidenced by a prize fight between the English and Irish bare knuckle champions in January 1824 which enthralled a 30,000-strong crowd for two and a half hours – beat that, messrs McGregor and Nurmagomedov. Popular with the public from the outset, the race programme steadily grew in size and momentum over the next century to the extent that, when selling their combined 93 acres of Pitchcroft to the antecedent of Worcester City Council in June 1893, the land’s freeholders deemed it an absolute prerequisite of sale that racing still took place on at least 12 days per annum. Steeplechasing and hurdling had come to the Pitchcroft in 1830, far back in time enough for the chase course to exhibit all of the characteristics any racing history buff might expect of an early jumps course – a natural country layout and a wide variety of permanent obstacles. A figure of eight with conventional obstacles replaced it 50 years later, and the first incarnation of the present oval layout followed in 1901.
An increasingly moderate relation to the jumps for much of its life after that, the plug was finally pulled on Worcester’s Flat programme in August 1966.
Fair and Loved by Humans and Horses Alike
In contrast to A Long Time Gone, in which some former horsemen would occasionally really stick the boot into those former courses they deemed unsafe (one thinks immediately of the recollections of Alexandra Palace and Wye), there aren’t many critical voices in Pitt’s new work where the experience of racing around the Pitchcroft is concerned.
Enthusiastic endorsements of the long straights, good fences and overall fair test abound, in some cases even from among those dealt an unkind hand by the course. How poignant, in particular, to read the recollections of Gaye Chance’s Worcester exploits by his then pilot, the late Sam Morshead, whose career was ended abruptly by facial injuries sustained at the same course in August 1987.
Another avowed Pitchcroft enthusiast, Worcester bore witness to John Francome’s first ride – and win - in
public, aboard the Godfrey Burrtrained Multigrey in December 1970, as well to as the soup and sausage van the enterprising jockey used to operate in between rides for several years. Back on the Flat over two decades prior, the first leg of Gordon Richards’ double at a May 1947 fixture took him to the 3,260-winner mark, a then world record.
A chase winner at Worcester aboard her own Cnoc Na Cuille in September 1987, the Princess Royal was presumably unavailable for comment.
Twice in the mid-1960s did the course set new marks for the biggest number of runners at a British racing fixture – 186 in nine races on Grand National day in 1963 (the second straight year that this fixture had enjoyed television coverage from Midlands regional franchise ATV), and after briefly losing the crown to Chepstow, the total of 229 in eight races during January 1965 which presentday safety and stabling limits shall ensure will never be beaten.
No more a jockey than your reviewer is a composer, one famous non-racing figure who cultivated a fanatical love of Worcester races in his autumn years was Sir Edward Elgar. A tragedy, therefore, that the inaugural running in April 1934 of the Edward Elgar Plate, a juvenile sprint programmed with the composer’s blessing, fell six weeks after his passing.
And then there’s the horses. Away from the glare of the Grade One tracks, many connections have proven happy to trust Worcester with their present or future stable stars, emboldened in some instances by concerted efforts to frame better quality races there.
Hence the sights of Tingle Creek and Badsworth Boy bombing round Pitchcroft under welter burdens. Hence a run of ATV Today Chase winners from 1980-2 that read: Silver Buck, Night Nurse, Wayward Lad. Hence also a roll of honour for the Fred Rimell Memorial Novice Chase that can include Morley Street, Barton Bank and more recently The Giant Bolster among its number.
Pendil landed a handicap hurdle here in 1970, before attentions were turned to fences, whereas Comedy Of Errors’ solitary attempt over the larger obstacles comprised a second place finish to Casamayor in the 1977 ATV Today Chase. Baron Blakeney’s novice hurdle win in March 1981, meanwhile, was the second leg of a rapid-fire hattrick finished off with the Triumph Hurdle success that really announced Martin Pipe as a trainer.
Of Aintree and Sponsorship
The biggest race of them all, the Grand National, is so deeply engrained in the DNA of Worcester Racecourse that there’s neither need nor space in the book for Pitt to revisit Elsich, the frighteningly incompetent anti-hero of Go Down To The Beaten’s 1946 chapter who qualified for that year’s ‘National following a very remote Worcester third place finish.
Instead, the exploits of far worthier candidates are expounded upon. They include, but are nowhere near limited to, Emblem and Emblematic, the sibling mares who won successive 1860s Nationals for National Hunt Committee founder and Worcester
racecourse patron the 9th Earl of Coventry; Fred Rimell’s four successes from ESB to Rag Trade, ample reward for a man whose installation on Worcester’s management team helped reverse the course’s perilous early-mid 1960s financial situation; Foinavon, victorious at Aintree while his handler John Kempton trained and rode an earlier winner at Worcester (called home by an 18-year-old Graham Goode on his first Rules commentary engagement); Hallo Dandy, Last Suspect and Little Polveir all contesting the same autumn 1984 renewal of a Worcester feature handicap chase; and 2014 hero Pineau De Re, sent out from Dr Richard Newland’s Claines base barely three miles north of the Pitchcroft.
And all of this, incidentally, without even considering the winning rider of the inaugural (1836) running of the course’s early signature steeplechase, the Worcester Grand Annual – a certain Martin Becher, pre-Aintree immortality…
Although subject of a somewhat drawn-out decline, time was that the Worcester Grand Annual, held most years until 1933, ranked either equal or outright second in terms of the most important steeplechases in the land (trailing only the main event at Aintree). Whilst the newly revived 2m7f 0-125 handicap chase won this year by Charlie Longsdon’s Bestwork cannot number among the season’s highest class events in 2018, it boasts one thing its original incarnation never did – a sponsor.
Ansells, Mitchells & Butlers, ATV and AGA were among Worcester’s most enduring supporters during the formative years of race sponsorship, but the daddy of them all was the Worcester Royal Porcelain Chase first held in 1951 – six years before the Whitbread and Hennessy came along - and boosted by commentary on the Light Programme (now BBC Radio 2).
The first ever sponsored steeplechase anywhere, then? Not according to a sniffy contemporaneous piece in the Sporting Life. Pitt rightly counters that smallish as it may have been, the race’s cash purse, augmented by trophies such as dinner service prizes, still constituted sponsorship as we’d understand it now. Whatever, one wonders, would the Life’s columnist have made of the cash/prize imbalance at point-topoints!
Summer Jumping – It All Counts
Pitchcroft Ham, or Holme, to give both variants of its full name, essentially translates as “inner island” or “flood plain”, the last of which it has proved all too capable of living up to on multiple occasions. Go further back in time, and local reports from January 1861 suggest the course, first inundated by another breach of the adjacent River Severn’s banks and then frozen over, could even be skated on by torchlight.
By the late-1950s the course’s frequently lost winter fixtures were becoming an insurance liability. “It may be necessary to curtail December to March meetings”, one Alderman W. Bird stated with commendable prescience, in effect anticipating by some 27 years the move to summer jumping proposed by racecourse manager Jack Bennett to his industry peers in 1994, and enthusiastically enough received that five other courses joined Worcester in making the change the following year.
Reading this book at the very time of year when racing and betting media outlets increasingly insist that “the jumps season is upon us”, as if the previous four or five months of jumps action are somehow devoid of worth, how delightful it is to be reminded that the Pitchcroft has continued to offer opportunities at nascent stages of their careers to many future top-notchers since its rebirth as a summer jumping venue.
That’s something which endures right to the present day. It was, after all, an August fixture at which Cole Harden popped up in a bumper, September meetings at which Village Vic and Balthazar King broke their hurdling and chasing ducks respectively, and (most recently) a mid-July fixture last year that saw the amazing Black Corton initiate part one of an eventual chasing five-timer.
Belated Many Happy Returns
Pitt’s usual style of concise, small chapters keeps Pitchcroft breezing along nicely over the course of around 200 pages, and with the exception of a misspelling of the one-time Valerie Lewis Memorial Chase winner Oumeyade (owned then by Mrs Lewis’s widower Jim of Best Mate and Edredon Blue fame), factual or technical errors appear non-existent.
A wealth of reproduced paintings, maps, racecards and superb official raceday photographs all help make events of decades and centuries past crackle with life on the page. Also most welcome is a short final chapter which helpfully places Pitchcroft in the context of the locality’s other former racing venues, such as the track at Pershore which hosted the Land O’ Plums Chase - revived at Worcester in 2010 - until the outbreak of World War II and the line at Crowle, the original home of pointing “Classic” the Lady Dudley Cup.
If there is one small criticism, it’s that a couple of interesting events of relatively recent vintage aren’t afforded a little more coverage. It would have been nice, for example, to learn about what specific background circumstances or discussions led to the 2000 takeover of the racecourse by Arena Leisure. Equally, there’d surely have been some succulent quotes to share regarding Moulin De La Croix’s walkover in a July 2012 novice hurdle, a situation caused by the trainers of the other eleven declared runners in the race withdrawing their charges in a prizemoney protest at the height of the Horsemen’s Group’s tariff-driven actions.
These are extremely minor shortcomings, however, as this latest addition to Pitt’s canon of work unquestionably succeeds in rounding up three centuries of captivating equine action. Belated many happy returns, Worcester Racecourse.
Pitchcroft : 300 Years of Racing in Worcester costs £13.99 and is published by Pitchcroft 300. It can be ordered via the Worcester Racecourse website, by emailing pitchcroft300@ gmail.com or by phoning 01905 253 64 – add £2 for p&p. It can be bought from the racecourse office in person.