At Aintree on the Friday before the Grand National punters didn't need binoculars so much as periscopes. Newmarket's Rowley Mile Course on the Thursday of the Craven meeting offered spectators the chance to volunteer for one of those ITV Near Death Experience shows, since any attempt to venture outside took you into what seemed like the eye of a tornado. The following day at Newbury, the wind and rain had eased to the extent that you could go outside, provided there was an SAS survival suit handy.
Of course, racing and bad weather are as English as flu and chilblains, so the moan is only a circumstantial one. The real source of irritation over the three days came in testing what might be called the user-friendlessness of the facilities under these extreme conditions. For at all three meetings, you were reminded of the unwritten rule of British racing that it is funded by the many for the privilege of the few.
At Aintree, a pounds 20 badge entitled you to stand in the torrential rain on the roof of the County Stand - for those who haven't been, an altitude of at least 100 feet is required at Aintree in order to see any of the racing beyond the last two fences. If you asked the people who run Aintree why the County Stand roof hasn't got a roof of its own to protect racegoers, I expect you'd get a blank stare and an answer along the lines of 'Sorry, we don't stand there'.
Trying to seek sanctuary, or sight of a racehorse, in the more modern Queen Mother Stand, proved just as frustrating. The public areas were jammed with drenched punters, steaming like horses after a four-mile chase. Any attempt to scale the upper floors offered glimpses of vast spaces sealed off by commissionaires. And gradually, you became aware of the high percentage of the stand which was set aside for hospitality boxes, private luncheon-rooms, Jockey Club members and others who could afford to indulge their deep-rooted desire not to mingle with the public.
Newmarket's Rowley Course already has a head start in the Barmy Design Stakes, since the track itself is mostly beyond the clear sight of racegoers, with only the last two furlongs offering a coherent view. But the stands compound the insult to the intelligence and the wallet by being littered with signs reading 'No Admission', 'Private', 'Jockey Club Only'. The average customer is made to feel like an intruder upon a private estate.
Newbury's new Berkshire stand is, at least, a striking and innovative building. The public spaces are well-appointed and the catering and viewing facilities are well above the usual standard. It feels like there's been some democracy in the architectural thinking. But even in this welcome exception to the rule, there seemed to be a disproportionate provision of private boxes and lunching suites. I wonder if these facilities really do bring in sufficient money to justify their existence, or whether they're simply the product of a kind of reflex homage to a class system based on privacy and exclusion.
Certainly, the people who run British racing are still dominated by the land-owning classes and the Beerage. Just check the names in the front of any racecard - they read like the character list of a bad Evelyn Waugh novel. The author and academic David Cannadine has now published two books on the decline of the English aristocracy, suggesting that they have been forced to retreat into the margins of British society. If he is right then racing may well be one of their last redoubts, but one which they will not give up easily.
The recent sale of United Racecourses (Kempton, Sandown and Epsom) may well be a case in point. A subsidiary company of racing's bankers, the Levy Board, United Racecourses were offered for sale at a 'blind auction'.
Of the three bids received, two came from companies involving successful, self-made businessmen with ideas for both modernising, marketing and opening up not just the three courses but their whole approach to racing itself. The third bidder was a limited company called Racecourse Holdings Trust, a subsidiary of the Jockey Club, which already owns and runs nine courses, two of which are Aintree and Newmarket. And blow me, I know it's just a coincidence, and it was all done above board, and everybody took great care to avoid any conflict of interest, but the Jockey Club subsidiary won by just the short-head of a couple of million. The Office of Fair Trading apparently saw nothing untoward in one company now owning 20 per cent of British racecourses.
By way of a complementary gesture of openness and accountability, I should admit that I have, in the past, worked with and enjoyed the hospitality of the bidder who came second - the film and television production company Sunset & Vine. The chairman, Colin Frewin, and the managing director, Noel Healy, are both racing nuts and it would have been interesting to have seen what new ideas they could have come up with for the courses. Now we'll never know. They, like me, will just have to sit back and watch those still-private spaces.
AM I right in feeling that, a week last Wednesday, Sportsnight dropped its usual high standards of reporting for a bit of Beadle-like prurience? They were previewing the Embassy World Snooker Championship in Sheffield and had tracked down the former title-holder Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins in his new residence, a small hotel in Mansfield.
There was, as always, an air of the unpredictable about Higgins, but also, equally unsettling, a distinct sense that this was being deliberately exploited for the cameras. I felt as though I was being nudged - 'Look, he's at it again, tee-hee'. This was reinforced by the sequence, gratuitously left in, in which Higgins interrupted the interview for a toilet break. Des Lynam's raised eyebrow to camera after the report had a Ceefax sub-title along the lines of 'Well, I wonder what he's going to get up to next week]'
Sure enough, Alex delivered - starting an unwinnable ruck at the table with the referee John Williams, and bowing out of the contest draped in tabloid headlines. I'm not an apologist for Higgins's past excesses, but the man was an enthralling and original champion. It's stark staring obvious that he needs help - and quickly.
Instead of trailing him round like some fairground grotesque, I wonder if the BBC, the snooker authorities, and maybe even the tournament sponsors could pass the hat round and get the care he requires.
Peter Corrigan is on holidayReuse content