There are ten of us in all, me from Pasadena, the others from Long Island, NY, Baltimore, MD, Ann Arbor, MI, Las Vegas, NV, Chantilly, VA and Buffalo, NY, all under the direction of our fearless leader, Doug Thompson, the founder of Racing-Europe, now in his tenth year of assembling private and group trips to the racing meccas of Europe. The majority of the group are horse owners, and all are fans of the sport with Jeopardy-esque recollections of horses, races, sires, dams, and the history of the sport. Literally at all times, conversations center around great horses and races and experiences at tracks all over the U.S. These folks are racing encyclopedias, although I’m proud to say I hold my own pretty well. If one is not into the history and trivia of the world of racing, this trip is not for you. Personally I’m in heaven.
The key attributes that Doug Thompson brings to a tour of this nature are: (1) access, access, access…to seats and tables and areas where you would have a very, very difficult time getting tickets on your own, (2) careful research as to the interesting sights in both the racetracks themselves and the towns in which they are situated, and (3) very creative selections of super-authentic pubs and restaurants you would never find on your own, each of which provokes an “Oh yeah!” reaction upon arrival. Plus, the presence of private cars and vans at every stop along the way makes the journey incredibly comfortable.
Day 1: We Gather
For our introductory get-together, Doug has arranged an early evening boat ride up the Thames. We are staying at the Oakley Court Hotel, a country 4-star featuring nice-enough rooms, a lovely setting, an always-on-the-phone concierge and arguably the worst hotel chef in England, who at breakfast each morning serves up an inedible swill straight out of a Dickens novel. The Oakley’s most impressive feature is an expansive lawn stretching down to the banks of the Thames, which at this point—about 25-30 miles north of London—becomes a narrow river that resembles a tranquil stream, its rambunctiousness harnessed by dozens of locks upstream and downstream, its banks populated by rowing clubs and expansive mansions, each with its own luscious lawn and gazebo with occupants enjoying evening cocktails. Our pilot Brian provides us with a narrative of the history of the area, pointing out the celebrity residences along the way, while we make introductions over cocktails and canapés.
A telltale moment: to give you an illustration of the intensity of the interest of this group in the sport of horseracing, there comes a moment when we are gliding upstream, when suddenly one of our crowd, staring at his iPhone, calls out: “Unbridled Song just died.” (For the benefit of the uninitiated, this horse was the son of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and went on to win the Breeders Cup Juvenile and become a very good sire in his own right; a very nice animal, but hardly a horse for the ages.) The reaction is a murmured gasp from all around, similar to what one would expect upon hearing that a beloved legend such as Jimmy Stewart or Bob Hope had just died. I mean, these people really care about this stuff.
Day 2: Ascot
The “new Ascot” is a super-modernistic glass-and-steel colossus that looks as if it could have been designed by Frank Gehry. Doug has arranged for tickets for entry in the Royal Enclosure on the structure’s fourth floor where the crowd can mostly be described as elegant due to the dress code (and the cost of the ticket). Our ladies are decked out in fancy dresses, hats and fascinators, and all the men wear spiffy coats and ties (including a blinding white suit, black shirt and black tie by our Las Vegas colleague).
Today’s card looks interesting, and the handicapping shouldn’t be all that tough, should it? Let’s see, there’re 16 horses in the 2nd race, 29 in the 3rd, and 16 in the 5th. Hmmm. But we’re primarily here for The Big Race–The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, a race equivalent in prestige to one of our Triple Crown races. The race has been won the previous two years by wonderhorse Frankel, who retired undefeated and is considered one of the greatest racehorses of all time. This year’s favorite is the runner-up to Frankel in last year’s race, Cirrus des Aigles, but this isn’t his day as he is beaten by a German star, Novellist, who runs the mile-and-a-half in a course record 2:24 (that’s equal to the time Secretariat posted in his legendary Belmont, considered my many to be one of the greatest performances of all time. And bear in mind this was over a European course; I usually find that the Europeans run their route races in times about 3 seconds slower than U.S. horses owing to the uphills and downhills and course undulations they experience in their racecourses). I tell you, this is one great racehorse*. (Results of the day: Lost 60 GBP.)
Day 3: Jersey
Early this morning we hustle by van over to Gatwick and fly to the Isle of Jersey. Upon landing we are treated to a tour of the island, which functions as a combination resort destination and tax haven for wealthy Brits. The island is bounded by beautiful coastline and features beautiful farms and residences and lovely little villages. Stunningly nice—is has sort of the look and feel of Bermuda– it’s a definite “go-back-to” place.
We’re here to attend the Jersey Derby, the island’s signature racing event, held at a cozy little racetrack overlooking the English Channel out on a far point on the island, where you watch the races from a hillside (“The Stand”). Doug has made arrangements for a table for us in the “Members’ Enclosure”– actually a tent with dozens of tables and Jersey’s swells in their racing finest– where an absolutely delicious buffet is served. It is a five-race card, starting off with a contest in which one of the horses stubbornly refuses to face forward for the start, prompting the (superb) racecaller to comment publicly: ”I say, I have never seen an animal so uninterested in running.” (Footnote: Mr. Reluctant finally turns around and, after the jockey on the horse leading down the stretch suddenly fell off his mount, actually come on to win.)
The mile-and-a-half Derby is won by 8-1 Major Maximus, upon whom I have bet because his sire, Domedriver, completed a big exacta for me in the Breeders Cup Turf Mile at Arlington many years ago. (When you don’t have that many big winners, you remember them.) (Results of the day: Won about 40 GBP.)
Day 4: Royal Windsor
They race at night at Royal Windsor, so our day is free for lunch in town and then a tour of Windsor Castle and Eton College. Doug’s ctop-notch ontacts are apparent once again as our tour guide, Amanda, is greeted cheerfully by every single palace guard and docent as we bypass long lines and go through the castle’s chapel, residence and presentation rooms in the express lane. After the tour, on to the track.
You arrive at Royal Windsor in a manner unlike any other anywhere: by water. After our tour, we catch the river boat in downtown Windsor and float up the Thames to the quaint dock alongside the grandstand. Our seating at this event will be in an outdoor garden., where we have a table for ten under umbrellas.
It’s Irish Racenight at Royal Windsor, and the place is filled with Irish bands and folksingers, followed by a concert after the races. It’s an odd night weatherwise, with ten-minute rainstorms followed by an hour of blue sky, then rain again. Another oddity is that the track is configured in such a way that there is a period in each race in which the entire field completely “disappears” for 15-20 seconds as they negotiate a loopy figure-8 course before heading to the stretch run. As for the races themselves, the horses here tend to be second-tier, several notches below the world-class Group 1 and Group 2 runners we’re seeing at our other stops, but the merry party atmosphere still makes this a special night of horseracing. (Results: Won about 30GBP.)
Day 5: Goodwood
We’re here for “Glorious Goodwood”, one of this gorgeous racetrack’s racing festivals which attracts the social racing elite of England. We’re staying at the exceedingly nice Goodwood Hotel, where the parking lot is filled with about a hundred cars, a good 30 of them Bentleys, the rest Mercedes, BMWs and Range Rovers. It’s a very “clubby” scene, since most of the hotel’s guests are owners and trainers who know each other and who renew acquaintances each evening at a bar that’s so crowded it takes twenty minutes to order a drink.
Goodwood itself is, to put it simply, the most beautiful racetrack in the world. You look out over the racecourse to miles of farms and rolling hills that go on for miles and miles, just the way the English countryside looks in paintings. Today the weather is dicey, with cool temperatures and a bothersome windy mist that drives us indoors to a restaurant. Only problem: the majority of the Goodwood restaurants are private, reserved for the Annual Members. The only two non-reservation indoor restaurants are the Charlton Enclosure (lunch for two $650) or the Caviar House (my lunch of half-lobster and Pepsi is 96GBP, or about $150). The only other option is “van food” from a cluster of food trucks parked down the back lawn.
Seven races on today’s card, including a Group 3 and a Group 2, and because of the weather the course will be rated Good/Soft, which is the way a lot of Euro runners like it. Again, some big fields today…12 horses in the 2nd, 14 in the 3rd, 13 in the 4th, and then a couple of whoppers, 20 in the 5th, 26 in the 6th. I’m betting win/place (here they pay off for second or third for place), but I’m missing ‘em every race, having my horses come in fourth or fifth or down the track. But it’s not a miserable experience, since everyone else is losing ‘em all, too, even the Long Island horseplayer who really knows his stuff and is being confounded by these foreign horses. So we remain a merry bunch, knowing that a good dinner is on the way and tomorrow will be another day.
As we depart the track, we are serenaded by the English Marine Band playing lots of old WWII standards and marching music…a great sight that makes you forget all about the ones that got away. (Results: Lost about 50 GBP.)
Day 6: Goodwood
Day 2. This is a much nicer day than yesterday, slightly overcast but clear, so that the hills and farms shimmer in the distance and the Goodwood turf looks like the greenest green on earth.
I can’t afford those $150 lunches, so I opt out of the group and head over to the food vans to sample the local offerings, staring with a Roast Hog bap (sort of a bun sandwich) with sage stuffing and applesauce (godawful), a Goodwood sausage (tasty, but look out for those onions…hot, hot, hot!), and a small portion of fish and chips (delicious).
The day starts off with one of the highlights of my entire trip—a 2-5/16 mile race in which the horses traverse a scenic Goodwood course that’s shaped like a bent safety pin, traveling left, then right, then left across the panorama…one of the most beautiful and interesting sights I have ever seen at a racetrack, made better by the fact that I had the exacta. This is the day I’d been waiting for, as I proceed to win the next three exactas as well and then a win bet at 14-1. I’m cookin’! One of those exacta wins is in the feature race, the Group 1 Sussex, billed in the Racing Post as the ultimate showdown between two big-time archrivals, Dawn Approach and Toronado, with another dangerous horse, Declaration of War, lurking in the shadows as the possible upsetter. A fabulous race ensues, with Toronado winning by a neck in a furious finish. (Results: Won about 150 GBP. The only problem is, our group dinners are no-host and we split the cost of food and drink pro rata, and all of my profits are immediately eaten up by my share of the costs. I do the math, and I’m down about 300 GBP!)
The end of a wonderful experience.
The Racing-Europe tour having concluded, Doug arranges for a car to drive me from Goodwood to the train station in Reading, where I catch a train out to Moreton-in-Marsh so that I can meet Alison in the little village of Lower Slaughter. We’re staying at the Lower Slaughter Manor, a Relais et Chateaux property where we have a gorgeous room with only a few minor flaws—the toilet doesn’t work, the cold water faucet emits only warm water, and it’s impossible to adjust the scalding water coming out of the showerhead. Oh well, nothing’s perfect. The next day we go into London and fly to Deauville, where we stay at the beautiful Hotel Royal Barriere in a seaview room. Deauville, with its unique and colorful version of Norman architecture, ranks in my opinion as one of the loveliest towns on earth, and Alison loves it, too. On Saturday I go to Deauville’s “minor” track, Clairefontaine, a little gem that looks like it was created by Disney, for a day of steeplechase racing. I don’t usually think of myself as a fan of the jumpers, but a win/place on a 35-1 hot may have changed my views on that. On Sunday, Alison and I go to the main Deauville track and have lunch in the charming Paddock restaurant and watch a Group 1 race won by one of the powerhouse horses in Europe, Moonlight Cloud, after which Alison takes her 50 Euro profits and goes home., while I stay for the remaining races and fritter my money away. Everything back to normal.
* Footnote: If by some chance they bring Novellist to Santa Anita for the Breeders Cup Turf, bet the house. If they decide to go for all the marbles in the Classic, at least bet the garage. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen. That’s because the Brits have been advised by some racing-ignorant consulting firm to cash in on the “championship” phenomenon by instituting their own “Champions Day” in October (I’m going to it this year), which has infuriated the Americans and French because it dilutes the field of horses available for Breeders Cup in America and Arc Day at Longchamp. But the Brits are about to get theirs, since the Irish have announced that they are going to create their own Champions Day. Greed is good? Not in horseracing.