RACING: COMMENTARY: Queen's local a social club

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The Independent Online
Her family may have splintered around her, but perhaps the greatest disaster of Queen Elizabeth II's reign has been having Windsor Castle built on the Heathrow flightpath. Another conundrum provided by the Royal town is its racecourse. Windsor's track is a lazy figure of eight, designed so that horses run directly out of the setting sun towards the stands. These animals, which are attracted to the banks of the Thames in Serengeti- type numbers, are some of the worst in training. There are few informed judges alive who believe Windsor is not the most difficult place in the land to back winners.

All this might seem a recipe for ruin. Yet Windsor, which embarks on its run of hugely popular evening fixtures tonight, is one of the most successful tracks in Britain. It can supply a few lessons to a more famous track not so far away called Epsom, where they are struggling to make Derby day popular again.

Accepted wisdom in racing is that people go to see the sport because of good horses. Ergo: the better the horse, the bigger the crowd. This argument is a load of what geldings do not possess.

Epsom's former constituency, the old East End, has scattered and is wearing shell suits elsewhere, thus leaving the Derby without its largest block booking. But then their attendance was not generated solely by the racing in the first place. They came for the day out and atmosphere, what the Irish call the craic.

That is why the Cheltenham Festival is popular. The racing may be supreme, but it is the stew of Irish and British spectators in the stands that makes it. Similarly, Royal Ascot appeals to many who do not know their horse from their elbow, largely because there is an array of toffs and tramps to observe.

Epsom has lost much of this. The Queen's Stand is too elitist, the general areas too far removed from the theatre of action. One humdinger of an idea has been to create a celebrity area from which the Count of Monte Cristo could not escape, never mind anyone getting in. Merely inviting Joan Collins and Roger Moore and locking them in a sumptuous compound is not enough to save the great race.

Windsor understands that the body racing can portray a sexy and powerful image aside from the mere competition itself. They will welcome a disparate crew of about 6,000 this evening and not just those sad figures who have great bunches of badges hanging from their binoculars.

Windsor's Rays Meadow, where they have been racing since 1866, is one of the few courses you can reach by air, land and water. Charting the boiling Thames on the riverboat that leaves the Barry Avenue Promenade, opposite the Fort & Firkin, is one of the more pleasurable ways to start an evening's racing. The first contest is usually a seller or claimer, the last an event which, by tradition, goes to the favourite. In truth, like every other race, it rarely does.

"We like to have a programme of races that is going to attract a lot of horses," Sally Dingle, the course manager, says. "They're not all superstars, but we go for the numbers because it means good betting [for the bookmaker - catastrophic for the punter] and a good spectacle.

"We get everyone here from twin set and pearls to raggedy shorts and sandals. It's not just the smart set, the lads with their Porsches or the image of the betting shop, chaps in trench coats looking sinister trying to place large wads of cash. We do get them, but we get families, children and everyone else as well.

"We are a theatre of sport and we race for racegoers. It's fun here and everyone is not an aficionado of racing. I should think half the people that come don't have a detailed understanding of what they're watching. That doesn't stop them enjoying it.

"Whenever we've increased the value of the races to attract superstars, the number of horses drops, interest drops and the betting certainly drops. But we get so many people here on a Monday night that I can't get too heartbroken when people tell me it's a boring little track, the configuration is nonsense and you can't see from the grandstand.

"Racing in the evening has become a social thing, going out prepared to enjoy yourself as much as you would going to the pub. This is like a pub with a few hairy animals running around outside it." That sounds like a pub I once survived called The Wembley in Adswood, where everyone had their own pool cue. Pity there wasn't a table.

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