Growing up in Newmarket was something of a mixed blessing. Wonderful for the fact that I fell in love with horse-racing from an early age and not so wonderful for virtually every other reason imaginable. There is a particular atmosphere, which hangs in the air in Newmarket, the smell of countless disappointments and rare wealth, mingling together in a particularly volatile state of flux. As a teenager with thoughts only of landing the jackpot, or the more realistic dream of getting four up on a Yankee, this was a feeling that only became apparent as one matured and the air of regret seeped out from the endless line of pubs which litter the town like pockets of oxygen, supplying the racing “community” with its lifeblood.
As schoolboys we had no connection to racing, none of our families worked in the industry and it gave us the unique perspective of being legless in a one-horse town. We looked in from the outside, unable to understand why men in their fifties and sixties, whose career highlights had faded as the world moved on, still trudged to work as we finished our paper rounds, mucking out their three and finishing at one to settle down in the bookies until heading off again at five. These were men who could not see themselves doing anything else and who still harboured hopes of that one big win which would take them onto some mythical plane of success which had eluded them all their lives.
Newmarket had drawn them, as it draws thousands of young people each year; a flat, green magnet on the fault line between Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, a fitting metaphor for a town with intellectual aspirations and realistic prospects. One only had to spend half an hour in any pub to hear the story of an ex-jockey repeating the story of how his eighth position in the 2,000 Guineas decades before should have propelled him into a career worthy of Piggott or Cauthen. Instead it had left him drinking cheap bitter at eleven in the morning. One amongst millions of tales, tips, tabs and Tetley which circled the town with a relentless familiarity. The shop fronts may change and people move on, but the racing remains and so the new crop fits old roles and nothing seems to alter. The faces at the top become a little more browned, a little more like the saddles that comfort their horses but, for the most part, the status quo abides.
Conversely it was this which I found reassuring , the fact that as I walked across the school playing fields, the Rowley Mile sitting serenely on the horizon, that I knew I would spend my lunch hour in safe hands. Sandwiches would be unwrapped as eyes scanned the tiny print of the Racing Post and this close attention to form would be mixed with the less scientific processes of instinct, favouritism and luck, which were the disparate elements that went into the curious alchemy of becoming rich on the horses.
Everyone around me knew and understood this and we were each quite aware that in this moment the future of our lives would soon be about to change. Of course this daily reverie was then interrupted by the racing itself, but before the reality came fluttering down in little pieces of pink and white paper we each had this one moment of supreme knowledge, one part of the day when we could take ourselves out of the humdrum and glimpse something different. When school was too much and life in general seemed as if it had forgotten me, I found solace in those smoky, profanely loss-ridden places. So that when the pennies my Dickens character of a boss paid me had all trickled down the drain, all that was needed was to check the entries for the following Saturday and the whole cycle of anticipation, excitement and disappointment could begin once more.
Growing up in Newmarket also helped mould my abiding preference for the flat. Now I know there are those people who will argue the superiority of a bunch of 10yos jumping round a bog at Fontwell in the middle of winter over a 2yo maiden at Yarmouth during warmest summer until they are even bluer in the face than the rosettes they wear. For me, though, the flat is racing, from the ante-post tickets on the Lincoln in February through the dying embers of the season and the November Handicap. I often wonder if the flat won the summer months in a bet placed long ago, or if it was simply a matter of the jumping fraternity being predisposed to sheepskin coats and grumbling. All I know is that the first time I went to the local course I was hooked, that despite the racecourse’s best efforts to dissuade visitors, I was smitten with the whole damn spectacle. I would notice how those with only interest in the money would quite happily spend all afternoon in the warmth of the bar watching the races on a television screen as the 24 carat reality was occurring under their noses.
To be close to the horses, to see them, to take in their entire exquisite form and feel something elemental as one made eye contact, that is what racing instilled in me. That for as long as I could experience this thrill I could handle anything and go happily in the world. For I had discovered early on such a sublime secret, one which took me to a place that only now, do I realise, why those touched by it find it hard to leave.
“Since then - tis Centuries - and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses Heads
Were towards Eternity.”
Emily Dickinson (“Because I could not stop for Death”)