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.

Racing Ahead - - CONTENTS -

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.

Worces­ter Race­course

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.