“ Address: Wood Lane / Uttoxeter / Staffordshire „
~I've Never Seen Star Wars - actually I have~
Comedian Marcus Brigstock has a show on Radio 4 called 'I've Never Seen Star Wars' in which he challenges celebrity guests to try things they've never had a go at before. I decided that 2012 should be my 'Never Seen Star Wars' year in which I would do a load of things I'd not tried before. I went to a floatation tank, took a photography course and went to see a ballet. Then my lovely husband picked up on some very heavy hints and booked tickets for Uttoxeter Races.
Many of the things I've never done have never been done for good reasons - predominantly that I don't WANT to do them but I have no idea how I survived this long without going horse racing. It's been on my 'top five things I've never done' list for several years now. My husband apparently spent ages googling racecourses the length and breadth of the country to find one where there would be racing the day after my birthday. Uttoxeter is a little over an hour from our home and proved to be a perfect choice. I hate big crowds so one of the major racing events would have turned me right off, but Uttoxeter typically gets about 7000 people and half of those seemed to spend most of their time in the bar.
Getting to the race course is easy and it's well signposted from the A50. Much to our surprise you can park up really close to the course and even more surprisingly, the parking is free. We followed all the signs to the race course, passed the two astonishing statues on the roundabouts (a giant bull and a centaur made of galvanised steel) and turned up about 45 minutes before the first race whilst things were still quite quiet. We had no problem getting a parking spot possibly because most people seemed to be drinking rather a lot and had probably left their cars at home.
~You're Best Bet is a Good 'Deal'~
Hubby had pushed the boat out and bought us the 'Classic Raceday' package which gave each of us tickets to the Premier Enclosure, a race programme, a welcome drink in the bar beneath the Premier stand, a cream tea and a £5 bet with the Tote. In total this came to £36 each which was £14 more than just buying tickets for the Premier Enclosure and represented quite good value. Certainly I was surprised when he told me how reasonable the price was. I was also impressed that if you don't mind going in the cheap area in the centre of the course, you can turn up on the day and pay just £9 and children get in for free in all areas of the racecourse. Booking online gets you a £3 saving which is refreshing in an era when it's more typical to get charged extra for booking ahead rather than saving on the deal.
~Finding your way around~
Our tickets were on swingers that you can hang from a button or a handbag strap and these were scanned at the entrance. We then exchanged our vouchers for the race programmes which otherwise cost £3 each. We took a quick walk around to see 'what was where' and to get the lie of the land. I rather liked the simplicity of the buildings, most of which looked a bit like a glorified scout hut or cricket pavilion and even the big stand wasn't terribly big.
The Paddock is the area where the horses are shown prior to racing and we enjoyed watching the stable lads and lasses walking their beautifully groomed horses around the show area. There are seats at the front and stepped boxes behind for people to stand or sit on and get a good view of the horses. We soon realised that it must take years to be able to look at a horse and know if it's going to be any good. My husband liked a feisty nag in the first race that was fighting with its handler until someone pointed out that it would be exhausted long before it got to the start line because it was jumping around so much. Sure enough, it strolled in last of the lot. One guy who clearly knew his stuff was coaching his young daughters "Look at the ears" he told them. "Pick the one that most looks like it's 'up for it'". We probably only would have noticed the ears if they'd been missing altogether but he clearly had a point - the horse he pointed out to his daughters was the biggest outsider of the day to win a race.
After watching the 'beauty parade' in the paddock we shuffled off to the Tote to place our 'free' bets on a no-hoper in the first race and one that appeared to be running backwards in the second.
In the area between the paddock and the course there are lots of fast food stands (burgers, roast pork sandwiches etc) as well as a champagne bar and the entrances to the private rooms which overlook the course. One has a large banner announcing that it was Pat's 70th birthday and we did think that a day at the races with a room would probably a great way to celebrate such an event.
~And they're off!~
We watched the first and sixth races from the Premier Stand, enjoying the lively atmosphere of the crowds cheering on their horses and getting great views of the race on the large screen opposite the stand. Both times we had no trouble to find somewhere to stand and the view was great. I had taken my camera with me and was more interested in getting a bit closer to the horses and taking some photos so we watched the rest of the races from the side of the course or up on a bank close to the last fences. Our favourite spot was down on the rails just at the furthest point where we could still see the screen but close to the last fence for taking photos.
After the second race we went to get our 'welcome' drinks - a diet coke for my husband and a very generous glug of white wine for me. I risked missing the third race by joining the ludicrously long queue for the ladies toilets. Drinks are not allowed in the stand but we were able to take them to the track side because they were in plastic 'glasses'. We had a rather excellent 'cream tea' (coffee, scone, clotted cream and post little pots of jam) between the 6th and 7th races.
It's quite confusing trying to follow what's going on as the Tannoy system is quite muffled and the commentator doesn't speak as quickly as the traditional television race commentators so you can go quite a long time between hearing your horses name as he slowly tells you what order the horses are in. The screen helps a lot of course and the atmosphere when the ending of a race is close is electric. There's also a great spirit of fun about the place - everyone laughing at the favourite who didn't want to start and threw his jockey off before the start (and again half way round) and gasping at the novice rider who decided to go for broke in the first stretch of the first circuit in a fit of over exuberance. We learned that backing the jockey you've heard of isn't the wisest approach with AP McCoy not winning any of his races and Ruby Walsh taking the long walk back to the paddock after getting unceremoniously dumped off another favourite.
~Impressed? You bet!~
Several things impressed me about the racing. Firstly, that women riders compete as equals with the men and that once they're in the saddle you really don't know which rider is male or which is female. Secondly that the jockeys work SO hard, many of them riding five or six different horses in an afternoon, changing their colours in between so possibly working for multiple trainers. Thirdly, that the sport is so good natured and that even a crowd of 7000 people, many of them seriously tanked up on warm beer and wine, can still behave themselves. And finally I was astonished at the number of women wearing sky-high heels and platform shoes to a sporting event.
This brings me neatly to the whole dressing up 'thing'. When I found out the day before that we were going I had a mini-panic about what to wear and wasn't surprised to discover on the Uttoxeter Races website that the first FAQ on their list was 'What do I wear?' The answer seems to be pretty much 'What you want to" although they have a rule that no ripped jeans and no football or rugby tops are allowed. For the Premier and 'hospitality' areas they ask for 'smart casual' but plenty of people wore smart jeans. Nobody would have known what I was wearing as I kept my coat on pretty much all day but my husband made a bit more of an effort. Many people do like to dress up and a lot of the young men were turned out in smart suits and the women in 'going to a wedding' type gear complete with the scary shoes.
Finally I have to address two controversial issues - animal welfare and betting. I was really fired up for going and was telling an old friend the night before we went. "I love horses" she said, "but I'm not sure I could watch them jump - I'd be too afraid of them hurting themselves". Suddenly I remembered the Cheltenham Gold Cup meeting a few weeks back where horses seemed to be getting shot left, right and centre. Would I EVER go back if such a thing happened whilst I was watching? I think probably not. Fortunately the jumps at Uttoxeter were mostly pretty small and half the horses seemed content to run straight through the fences rather than jump over them. There were no big, mean, nasty fences like you'd see at the Grand National
Next onto the betting industry.I am not a fan of gambling - in fact I'm a bit puritanical about such things and I don't even do the lottery. We used the 'free' bets that came with our package and betted on just one other race. For the other five we each picked a horse and cheered it on but no money changed hands. I don't think betting is good for society and I think it brings a lot of trauma to many people but I was forced to see that this spectacular sport could have absolutely no future without the support of the bookmakers and without the money that's made on gambling. Like most things, I guess it's a case of everything in moderation and it's up to the individual not to get too carried away and the same kind of people who can't control their gambling are likely to have addictive personalities that would lead them to drink, drugs or wife/husband beating. However it does leave me with a bit of an uneasy feeling. I loved watching the horses in the paddock and on the racetrack, enjoyed the excitement but felt a bit sad that probably more than any other sport, it's the betting industry that keeps horse racing viable as an industry.