The turf

Absolute beginners

3 September 2015

1:00 PM

3 September 2015

1:00 PM

Heaven be praised for the sinner who repenteth, however long it takes. For President George Bush Senior, his occasional meetings with Margaret Thatcher were like visits to the dentist: an inevitable occasion but not one to be anticipated with pleasure. Mrs Oakley has long taken the same attitude to going racing: at one Sandown Park meeting she was spotted back in the car park with a novel. At Windsor last weekend, however, she turned to me and declared: ‘You know, when you get to see the horses properly I can understand the appeal.’

Two circumstances had assisted the breakthrough. One was that the horses we were watching in the parade ring were mostly mature four-, five- and six-year-olds contesting a Listed race, not a bunch of skittish raw-boned two-year-olds yet to fill out their frames. Well-muscled, powerful individuals, they loped around athletically with the controlled swagger that comes from racing experience. Clearly Mrs Oakley is coming to appreciate the more mature individual. As Gypsy Rose Lee once commented on the ageing process: ‘Honey, I’ve still got everything I used to have, it’s just that it’s all a little bit lower’ — although I bet she was no better than the rest of us getting up from a sunken car seat.

The other factor in Mrs Oakley’s mini-conversion was that we were in company with two sporting Swedish ladies, Gunilla and Anita, to whom we had promised a racecourse experience. Racing is a sociable sport best enjoyed in company and once Anita had recovered from her initial exposure to a typical British evening racing crowd — ‘Half of them look as though they have just got out of bed, the other half look as though they can’t wait to jump into bed with someone’ — the three enjoyed the experience together. Indeed Anita took enough photos on her iPad to illustrate a social history of British racing.

It was not the perfect experience. The second I bought a jug of Pimms and settled the trio in a seat on Windsor’s lush green lawns it began to rain and we were forced to retreat to cover. We shared the few benches in the tiny, grimy stand opposite the finishing line with a nine-day-old baby who understandably took a less cheerful view of the proceedings than we did. (I did get one sharpish glance from Mrs Oakley when I suggested that it was never too early to start a child on racing.) You could not distinguish a word of the course commentary. There were too few Tote windows open and the queues to bet with the bookies beside the parade ring were interminable. For an industry in hot competition for the leisure pound that is simply not good enough, and yet at Windsor you somehow forgive some rough edges because it is such a friendly, accessible little course. Saddling boxes, parade ring and winners’ enclosure are all within a toddler’s walking span. The food stands are cleaner and offer better variety than on most tracks and as the whip-tapping jockeys make their way across the lawns between drinkers to join their mounts in the parade ring there is an easy informality.

My advice to the trio proved a mixed blessing. I advised them that you could rarely go wrong at Windsor backing horses trained by Richard Hannon and that since Dermot Weld rarely sent horses from Ireland without a winning chance his Fascinating Rock was unlikely to be beaten. I told them that apprentice Tom Marquand was on a hot streak and that Harry Bentley is riding plenty of decently priced winners. Bentley, having driven on from riding the winner in the first at Goodwood at 5-1, duly won the last two races at Windsor on Beautiful Romance at 9-2 and Instill at 5-4. Tom Marquand, too, won by a neck at 5-2 on La Superba, a nicely judged ride after seemingly toiling in the rear for much of the race. But Dermot Weld’s raider, backed down to 6-5 favourite, could finish only fifth and although Richard Hannon’s Papa Luigi, also a 2-1 favourite, was beaten only by a neck in the first race, his only other runner in the frame was Gibeon, third in the Listed race.

As it happened, Gunilla and Anita needed little help. I had suggested they did a Placepot (seeking to find a placed horse in all six races) to sustain interest through the card and they permed two selections from each race. Not only did Anita pick winners in Missy Blue Eyes (12-1), La Superba (5-2) and Beautiful Romance (9-2), they had seconds with Papa Luigi, Battalion and Jersey Jewel. Anita was expecting me to deliver a sack of money, but alas I had not been clear enough that a successful Placepot requires one in the frame in every race and in the third their selection missed it by one. Tough luck, but then Anita had probably taken her gambling good fortune to the limit: she once won enough at a casino to buy a car!

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