Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Newmarket, and Edinburgh

Ryder Cup!

So it’s off to Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland. But before heading to the land of plaid and tartan, there’s a stop to be made on the way: Newmarket Racecourse in Central England.

Thursday, September 25

Upon my arrival at Heathrow at 5:15 a.m., I was greeted by Neil Morrice (pronounced like Maurice), a chap I met earlier this summer at Glorious Goodwood and with whom I later struck up an email correspondence. Neil bills himself as a racing journalist (formerly 14 years on the staff of England’s Racing Post and now a free-lancer), a “tipster” (an actual profession in the U.K…in this case, Neil has a series of about 100 “clients” who pay him for betting advice on races at tracks in England, Ireland and France), and broadcaster (he has a five-minute broadcast each day from a feature race in England to the simulcast outlets in South Africa).

When I mentioned that on my way to Scotland for Ryder Cup I was coming to the races at Newmarket on Thursday, September 25, he replied that he insisted on (a) picking me up at Heathrow, (b) driving me to my hotel in Mayfair to drop off my bags, (c) driving me to Newmarket and giving me a tour, and (d) taking me to the races and obtaining a badge for the Premier Enclosure. When Alison learned of this invitation, she was very leery…”what does this guy want from you?”…”why would he be willing to do this?”…”what do you know about this guy?” I didn’t know. I just had the guy’s card I later would learn that he’s simply a very nice guy.

Newmarket is England’s horse country– its version of Lexington, Kentucky– in that it is the center of the country’s horseracing industry and the home to most of its prominent trainers. In the U.S. trainers typically train their horses at racetracks where they are stabled. In the U.K., horses are vanned from racecourse to racecourse as racing locations change each week, and as a result trainers maintain their own facilities, often 500-acre pastures and training tracks, called “gallops”, usually accompanied by beautiful mansion-like homes and miles of fencing. Trainers in England are frequently members of the landed gentry who have inherited their properties and who have had relationships with English royals and aristocrats (and now Arab plutocrats) for generations, and accordingly many are very wealthy. For example, Sir Henry Cecil (whose son Ben Cecil is a trainer at Santa Anita) owns a gallop in Newmarket fronted by a virtual castle on land that extends for miles—gentle rolling property that stretches for as far as the eye can see. Neil Morrice has been in the business for 30 years and knows everybody, or at least knows everything about everybody, and he gave m the grand tour, including all the gossip about racing’s personalities, after which we went for breakfast at a local hotspot.

Finally it was time to go to the races at Newmarket, which Neil calls “the HQ of the racing world.” I know we tend to think of Churchill Downs, Saratoga, Keeneland, Santa Anita, etc.as the capitals of racing, but in fact Newmarket is the center of the international horseracing world where, outside of North America, the best horses, trainers and jockeys compete before dispersing to other English icons such as Ascot and Goodwood., as well as the U.S., France, Hong Kong, Ireland and Dubai. The Newmarket Racecourse features
a gleaming five-story grandstand in front of a gorgeous racetrack surrounded by English countryside. Neil picked up his Press badge, which gives him all-access privileges all over Newmarket Racebcourse, and got a me badge in the posh Premier Enclosure.
We stayed for six races, in which I, the amateur, outdueled Neil, the expert, winning four races at 5-1, 7-2,12-1 and 8-1, leading to a tidy 150 GBP profit. All in all, a perfectly wonderful day, and Neil Morrice was an exceptional host, whom I’m hoping to repay when he comes to Breeder’s Cup at Santa Anita.

Friday, September 26

Flew up to Glasgow, having the good fortune to sit (in my middle seat, seeing as I forgot to make a seat reservation) next to a local business executive who gave me tips on the best restaurants and the inside dope on the city, the Scottish independence referendum, and all things Scotland. As it turned out he is the UK representative of a Seattle investment firm, Russell Investments, and so was also very familiar with all things American. When I told him I would be staying at the Blytheswood Square Hotel, he gave mea thumbs up—“best hotel in Glasgow”—and insisted that I have dinner one night at the hotel restaurant where they cook steak on their special Josper grill…”carmelized and crusty on the outside, perfectly medium rare on the inside…if you like meat,you’ll love it!”.

It turned out he was right about the Blytheswood Square…Glasgow’s beautiful old Automobile Club building converted into a hotel with a gorgeous bar (the “Salon”) and a wonderful ambiance.. I was given a room in the new modern section, a nice, spacious well-equipped 400-square footer that was very comfortable (it wasn’t until our last day that I discovered that there was “another half” of the hotel where the rooms, according to the bellman I asked, were “really very special”, which led me to conclude Id been given a B room).

A few minutes after I arrived at the hotel, Lynn and Gary Conrad also checked in, so we took our initial spin around town to give it a once-over. Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland at about 650K and the former shipbuilding center of the British Empire, can be described as a gray place, with lots of elaborately ornate 19th Century buildings standing vacant. Still, it has a young populace who keep the bars jumping and the shopping streets packed. All of my executive friend’s restaurants were full, so we were forced to settle for dinner at a local pub. But not until we checked out our train tickets for the next days and realized that our Glasgow/Gleneagles train was scheduled for 5:29 a.m.!, with the first return train not scheduled until 5:09 p.m. Saturday was going to be a long, long day. The place we chose to eat was a raucous jam-packed pub filled with people half our age– waiting time for a dinner in the main room one-and-a-half hours unless we could find a table in the bar, which luckily we did.

Saturday, September 27

It’s Ryder Cup Day for Gary and me. On the train up to Gleneagles , we ride with a nice 65-ish Englishman and his son who were willing to sit with The Enemy. Englishman had once worked for an American company based in El Segundo, so he was very familiar with L.A. (and many of its golf clubs…he’d even talked his way onto Riviera one time). The two of them told us what we could expect at Gleneagles: lots of steep hills, lots of walking, lots of people. Whereas an event like the Masters allows 24,000 people a day on the grounds, Gleneagles was allowing 45,000.

Upon disembarking, another local was heard to day: “What a glorious day!” Apparently glorious in Scotland means a biting cold temperature, cloudy skies and a persistent wind that assaults you non-stop. For nine hours we huddled in four or five layers of shirts, sweaters and jackets, plus gloves and hats, as hour after hour wore on, the wind pelting us, but thankfully no rain, and we were even graced with a few short patches of sunshine which seemed to warm the body twenty degrees while shining.

There’s no denying that Gleneagles is a stunningly beautiful golf course, with all of its hills and valleys creating natural amphitheaters for standing and watching the action, and with a majority of the holes featuring large grandstands where you could sit and watch, provided you were willing to sit and watch nothing for an hour or more until the golfers made their way to your hole. The course itself was in spectacular condition, the fairways cut as finely as putting greens and looking like emerald green Karastan carpets, its rough trimmed to a surprisingly modest length, and an absence of many trees or water hazards to impede the golfers…just that damn wind.

The crowd was huge and every hole was teeming with mobs of people lining the fairways on both sides three or four deep and watching from the hillsides maybe twenty or thirty deep. Vocally, it was a 95% pro-Europe crowd. The American 5%, however, were pretty loud and definitely rowdy, various of them groups—actually “tribes”– dressed in (a) Minnesota Vikings outfits, (b) American flag kilts and tops, and (c) the invariable Uncle Sam attire, as they sang and cheered and sang some more. A little obnoxious at times, but the Scots—fabulously nice people, by the way—were mostly amused by their antics.

The one part of the day that didn’t work out were my plans to get together at Gleneagles with my nephew George Long, a PGA member from Cincinnati, and his wife Debbie, and with Bill and Debbie Sexton from Chicago. We had all planned to taxt/call one another to get together briefly at the tournament, but confounding technology and the enormous crowds and the massive geography of Gleneagles made that impossible to accomplish.

The Saturday morning and afternoon golf competitions themselves were fun to watch, with the Americans doing okay at first, but the Euros slowly gaining momentum hour after hour as they pulled out most of the toss-up matches and took a big 10-6 lead at day’s end. Oh well, so what? The U.S. held a 10-6 lead at Medina in 2012 and blew it on the final day. Maybe it would be Europe’s turn to collapse.

The train ride back to Glasgow greeted us with a pleasant surprise…no seats. Gary eventually located one for his elder companion, but he had to stand the whole way. That evening we stayed at the hotel for dinner and I tried out the much-touted Josper grill steak. Verdict: don’t go all the way to Glasgow to try it.

Sunday, September 28

I’m ashamed to admit that I bailed on Sunday of Ryder Cup. I simply couldn’t take that weather torture for another nine hours, and the prediction for Sunday was rain in the afternoon. Gary, naturally, was up for it, so he took off for the tournament, while Lynn and I went for a leisurely breakfast at a quintessentially English tea room (superb) and then migrated to a sports bar where, astoundingly, she decided to spend the entire day and watch the entirety of Sunday’s Ryder Cup action. A group of Scotsmen graciously advised a waitress that we would be welcome to join them at their couch/table set-up, and so we had a comfortable place to spend the afternoon.

What a delight! Instead of the snippets of action I’d been able to witness the day before, this day I actually got to see all holes, all the golfers, and well, some of the action. (I say “some”, because Sky Sports presented an unbelievably biased version of the day’s events. All good European shots and putts were shown, much to the delight of the Euro-supporters who roared with delight at each great shot. Apparently the U.S. squad didn’t have any great moments, because all we saw were errant shots into bunkers and long grass and missed three-foot putts, which in turn were greeted by roars of approval from the locals. And Sky Sports also ignored the colorful shenanigans of the U.S. fans that had been the best part of Saturday’s in-person experience.

Gary got a good break weatherwise. The predicted rain held off all day and he got to see a good deal of the golf action by wandering the course. Once again the Red-White-and Blue started off strong. Was that the scent of a miraculous comeback in the air? Ooops, wrong smell. The Americans proceeded to stink up the joint and ended up with a 16-1/2 to 11-1/2 loss…thrashing would be a better word. Everywhere we went, as soon as they realized we were Americans, everyone gave us this pathetic sad look as if to say “you must be so heartbroken”. We nursed our wounds with a super dinner at Glasgow’s No. 1 seafood restaurant, Gamba (another recommendation from my executive friend), and returned to the sports bar for a nightcap and more pathetic glances.

Monday, September 29

Said goodbye to Gary and Lynn, who, as usual, were delightful companions throughout this entire Scotland experience.

Destination: Edinburgh. Took the train through miles of lovely countryside chock full of herds of cattle and sheep and bales of autumn hay on a mid-60’s sunny day that even the Scots couldn’t believe.. I tell you, when Scotland gets nice weather, this country shines.

Arrived Edinburgh. This city needs a new PR firm. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of all the places I’ve been in my extensive travels, E-town is among the five most beautiful in the world.. Why is it that I’d barely ever heard a word about it? The city has an Old City from the 1100’s and a New City from the 1700’s and 1800’s and boy, they are both handsome places. Because time was limited and I wanted to get an overview of the city, I took one of those double-decker Hop-On/Hop-Off tours. (Yeah, I know, it’s touristy and hokey, but Edinburgh is full of hills and I needed a way to get around.) Again, what a nice city! The Queen has a castle there that she visits each July…not Edinburgh Castle, another one…and they have beautiful public buildings and the Scottish Parliament and a ton of historic architecture and scenic parks and clusters of townhouses. . Hundreds …thousands…of great-looking sandstone buildings line pretty streets and squares and parks. Terrific place.

I was lucky enough to be staying at the Balmoral Hotel, a palatial Rocco Forte property where, as a Leading Hotels Access Member, I was upgraded to a junior suite with five…count ‘em, five…windows and a view of the Old City and the Edinburgh Castle on one side, and some historic sites such ass the Sir Walter Scott monument on the other. Breakfast was included, so yes, I decided to try haggis, Scotland’s iconic dish made from organ meats and offal and horrible things. Not as bad as your imagination would lead you to believe, but also easy to understood why it never caught on as a staple elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 30

Flew down to London for a day, staying at the Marriott Grosvenor Square, in Mayfair near the U.S. embassy. Room wouldn’t be ready until 4:00, which always rankles me, so I killed a couple of hours strolling around Mayfair and Bond Street, London’s main shopping thoroughfare, and hitting Selfridge’s, the main competitor to Harrod’s.

For my evening entertainment, I had months ago booked a ticket at the always-sold-out play, Charles III, the rage of London theatre. The concept: the Queen has died, Prince Charles has ascended to the throne, Parliament has passed a law he doesn’t like, he refuses to sign it into law, Parliament threatens to take away his right to review legislation, he orders that Parliament be disbanded, and on and on it goes. All the players are there: a bombastic and somewhat pathetic Charles, Harry and a new unsuitable girlfriend, schemers William and Kate, a snarly Camilla, the snooty royal staff, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, in a play that’s half-serious and half-hilarious. This critic’s opinion? A terrific theatrical experience, a real hoot. If they ever bring it to the States, I’d call it a must-see.

Wednesday, October 1

Home again.