Under orders for grandest tour
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The racing set have been doing their grand autumn promenade round the world’s leading horsey venues: Newmarket, Longchamp in Paris, Belmont Park in New York and – for the more adventurous – Flemington in Melbourne.
Some of us have different priorities, which is how I came to ignore the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont – the most-hyped day’s racing in the calendar – and took myself to the hippodrome at Agen, which had the best racing of the day in that corner of south-western France.
Following a review of life’s priorities, one of my daftest undergraduate ambitions seems to have re-entered my head: the notion that I could somehow get to every racetrack on the planet.
Now there may be practical objections to this. The body clock is ticking loudly, and I still haven’t made it to all 52 courses in England (though I am within touching distance, owing to a seriously misspent youth), never mind all 27 in Ireland or even all two in Wales. And the score for France is still in single figures, though there are 265 tracks, which sounds suspiciously like the traditional number given for types of French cheese.
But it may not be that impossible. Elsewhere, the jam is much more thinly spread. Last I heard, Russia and China (excluding Hong Kong) only had one track each, and there are huge swathes of the US where racing is considered too sinful to be allowed – including, until recently, the whole of Texas.
Against that, it is already too late to get to some places. London’s last racecourse, Alexandra Park (“Ally-Pally”), which was shaped like a frying pan, closed years ago just when I was contemplating the fixture list. The last meeting at Phoenix Park, Dublin, clashed with my wedding. Most of Brazil’s 41 licensed tracks are now reported inoperative. And, though the sport flourished under Saddam, lingering round the paddock at Baghdad Races is presumably not an option under present conditions.
We do still have to sort out the parameters of what counts and what doesn’t. Do we include the off-the-wall, perhaps not-quite-kosher events like the Palio in Siena, the mad binge at Birdsville in the Australian outback, or the Naadam, the annual gallop across the Mongolian steppe? Got to see those.
Then what about trotting? It’s a damn silly branch of the sport, but the track at Valognes near Cherbourg does look enticingly lovely.
That is more than can be said for Agen. This is a nice cathedral city in Gascony, a magnificent region as long as you like confit de canard. But the hippodrome is in a dreary part of town, with straggly Lombardy poplars trying but failing to screen the factory next door. The stands are uglier still and hardly offer a view at all, for a crowd too tiny even on a warm autumn Sunday, to create any atmosphere. But this is normal in France where the racing is primarily designed for the distant audience in the cafes with their copies of the Paris-Turf. They let people in free, and they had a pleasant afternoon out. Some of us made a profit.
In any case, the glory of racing tourism is that everywhere is different, but on the other hand exactly the same. Wherever you go, there’s that same mix that makes racing so special: the choice of fresh air and bar-room fug; the silks glistening and the sweat rising; the fresh intellectual challenge that comes every half-hour with each race.
And racegoers everywhere have that same put-upon look. Punting helps steel you for a life in which disappointment is the norm, and success a pleasant surprise. And that’s the same in Agen, Auteuil, Avignon – and 16 other racetracks in France alone beginning with A that I haven’t yet ticked off.
In the meantime, it is possible to offer a few interim judgments:
Most beautiful – Ngong (Kenya), Chantilly (France), the picnic racetrack at Hanging Rock (Victoria), Goodwood in sunshine.
Most absurd – the Accra Turf Club: horses the size of greyhounds; a track reduced to idiocy because half the back straight was commandeered by the government; and a timetable so languid that races come at about two-hourly intervals.
Most atmospheric – the gloriously post-imperial racecourse at Tollygunge in Calcutta; Epsom and Churchill Downs, Kentucky, on their respective Derby Days, especially that moment at Churchill when the whole crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home”.
Liveliest punters – Caymanas (Jamaica) and Happy Valley (Hong Kong), where each race is treated as if the entire global economy depended on it.
Most inexcusably bad – Pimlico in Baltimore, a run-down dump.
Coldest – the trotting track at Blue Bonnets, Montreal, where they cheerfully race at –15°C.
Second coldest – Folkestone, when the wind’s blowing off the English Channel.
Best racing – Ascot.
Favourite – Ludlow.
I usually win money there.
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