Mugs, muck and not enough brass

We were far from the madding crowd of Cheltenham, but there was still no room in the watering hole overlooking the parade ring at Hexham Racecourse at 3.18pm on Thursday. Donald McCain Junior had to press his nose against the window of the Bramble Tudor Bar to catch up with the televised progress of the Gold Cup. He had nothing either riding in, nor on, the 3.15 at Cheltenham, unlike myself. "Is it The Last Fling that you're on?" he said. "Well, it's last all right."

Still, at least one of us wasn't going to leave empty-pocketed. McCain had just collected the winner's cheque from the three o'clock at Hexham, courtesy of the sparkling Lambrini Gold. The prize was not quite in the £162,400 Gold Cup class, but the £2,249 was gratefully received nevertheless - on behalf of the trainer-in-chief at the McCain yard in Cholmondeley, Cheshire.

Donald McCain Senior - Ginger McCain, the man who trained Red Rum - was otherwise engaged. "No, he's not at Cheltenham," his son said. "He's got an important owner coming."

So it was left to Donald Junior to bask in the glory at Hexham. And a glorious spot it is too, perched high in the Northumberland countryside with its its quaint afternoon tea room, its stall selling jars of boiled sweets and its breathing space on the concourse. While 60,000 punters packed Prestbury Park to see the Gold Cup, fewer than 1,500 souls made the hike up from Hexham town centre to watch the Tarmac Topmix Novices' Chase.

"Cheltenham's a once-a-year," McCain said. "This is the bread and butter, the every-day stuff."

For one of us, sadly, the bread was getting thin. "Who's won it ?" I asked as the cheering erupted in the Bramble Tudor Bar. "Looks Like Trouble," son of Ginger reported. With a mounting pile of mug-punter betting slips to take home to the missus, it looked like trouble indeed.

One for the birds

Charles Enderby stood back from the parade ring and admired the view. "That," he said, gesturing towards the Bramble Tudor Bar, "was built by my great-grandfather." It was not all that Charles Enderby's great-grandfather built at High Yarridge, two miles up the hill from Hexham town centre. It was Charles Henderson who put Hexham racecourse there.

One hundred and ten years later, his great-grandson is clerk of the course at Hexham, the highest jumps course in Britain. "It's 800ft from the top of the buildings, 750ft from the actual course down there," Charles Enderby said. "But, really, we don't like to boast about it."

They have no need to. From the moment you step out of the car at High Yarridge, the setting speaks for itself. The first sound you hear when you open your car door is the fluting of curlews. "Our motif is a curlew, actually," Enderby pointed out. "We have curlews nesting on the course every year."

They have other flying visitors too. "Last year we had to divert the course because a lark was sitting on its eggs over there," Enderby added. Never having set foot on a race- course before, it was not quite the wildlife I had always expected toencounter. There was no Dickie Attenborough getting carved up by rival mobsters in the betting ring, his fate as Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock.

Looking out on the course, though, the affable Mr Enderby did recall wilder times in these parts. "See those woods over there," he said. "Queen Margaret was hidden in a cave there after the Battle of Hexham - to keep her safe from brigands."

She was not the only royal to pass this way either. On his way to be crowned James I of England in London in 1603, James VI of Scotland stayed in Hexham and called the place "the heart of all England". His geographical orientation might have been a bit off, but at High Yarridge on Thursday it was clear that his metaphorical heart was in the right place.

A bet in the hand...

Next month Hexham stages its big race of the year, the Heart of All England Hunters Chase. The heart is tugging to return. The empty wallet is saying otherwise.

There's nothing to this punting lark, I thought, as Daring Native hit the front in the opening race on Thursday, the Keoghans Novices' Hurdle. When the jockey got out his whip at half-way, I started to think again. One circuit later the £20 profit had disappeared, and with it the £5 stake.

After two more whippings from the bookies, I returned to the betting ring with trepidation. "Tote Betting Guides", a gentleman carrying a cardboard box shouted. "Down from £10 to £2. All you need to know about betting."

Rather than be openly identified as the latest addition to the mug- punting fraternity, I scanned the card for the fourth race in search of redemption. At 10-1, Fools Errand might have provided it. At 4.20pm, however, it passed the post in sixth place.

I should have known that the betting game was for losers when, in the course of covering Newcastle United matches, I started investing £1 each week on Kevin Dillon to score the first goal, the theory being that, not having scored for years, he was bound to hit the target sooner or later. He did, but later rather than sooner - every week, it seemed, after he had left Newcastle for Reading.

I did back a 66-1 winner once, when Marc Hottiger scored in an FA Cup tie at Blackburn, though punching the air from the supposedly neutral territory of the press box was perhaps not the wisest reaction. The seething natives were not assuaged by the waving of a Ladbrokes slip in mitigation.