Miners' grandstand protest races to a photo-call finish: Jonathan Foster reports on the day the sport of kings served the campaign against pit closures

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Metaphor went through the card at Southwell races yesterday. Racing for the Mines Day featured an on-course bishop, a right-wing tipster berating the Government, and six fields of uneconomic horses competing on a level, but artificial, playing field.

It needed only packed grandstands to fulfil the hopes of organisers for a carnival of protest. But, despite distributing thousands of free tickets in the coalfields, only about 1,000 miners and their families dug deep for the bookmakers at the Nottinghamshire track. Dedicating the day's racing to the campaign against 31 pit closures was as prudent a move by Ron Muddle, the course owner, as it was generous. Tracks like Southwell, Doncaster, Sedgefield and Pontefract fear attendances will shrink if nearby colliery closures are confirmed.

Government energy policies - or their lack of any policy bred to stay the distance - led the Bishop of Sherwood, the Right Rev Alan Morgan, to a racecourse for the first time. 'After the lull of Christmas and new year, this is a good way of getting the campaign back on track,' he said.

As publicity, it was almost a classic, with more television camera crews than runners in the Clipstone and Thoresby Claiming Stakes, named like all the races after Nottinghamshire pits.

Most attention was focused on Richard Caborn, chairman of the Commons select committee on trade and industry, whose investigation into the closure programme the Government would dearly love to nobble.

Mr Caborn had never before wandered into the free market of racecourse bookmakers. But he enthusiastically assumed the role of professional punter in which BBC Television's The Money Programme cast him.

'I want a racing certainty,' Mr Caborn said to Leslie R Steele, genial bookmaker of Leeds. It needed three takes to synchronise Mr Steele, Mr Caborn, a pounds 5 note and a betting ticket.

Miners took a supporting role. Demoralisation has affected the workforce: only three banners made it to the course, Vane Tempest pit could not fill a coach from Sunderland, and two men from Rufford colliery, near Mansfield, said most colliers had chosen to work rather than take a day off.

Eddie Sheldon, from Vane Tempest, said he had come just for the day out. 'The campaign has definitely dropped off, but that's probably because of the holiday period.'

John McCririck, racing journalist and right-wing eccentric, injected some anti-Government vitriol, posing for the cameras with Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman. 'If you can unite us two, there is nothing remaining on either side of the political spectrum,' Mr Cook said before lampooning the 'bad form . . . pulled up in the last debate' of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade.

Mr Caborn was by now filming by the winning post, the political paddock betting 6-4 that the committee would recommend saving 21 pits, 4-1 saving the lot, and any price against them saying anything complimentary about the management of British Coal.

Three regular Southwell racegoers - large Londoners in camel coats - thought it 'a grand idea' to give over the day to miners. 'I feel a lot of sympathy for them, John. Let's face it, we're all punters ain't we?'

Mr Caborn's horse lost.

(Photograph omitted)