Racing: County set mix it in the mud - Paul Hayward mingles with the knowledgeable and the novices drawn by Plumpton's prosaic Bank Holiday pleasures

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The Independent Online
BANK HOLIDAY Monday at Plumpton and Charlie Moore, a local trainer who once swapped a pile of tractor tyres for a horse, is describing his long association with the course. 'I've been coming here,' he says, 'since I was the size of a flower pot and the Town Hall was a watchman's hut.' Take that as meaning 50 years.

The horses running round the tilted oval of Sussex's least glamorous track are mostly, as Moore concedes, 'blocks of wood', and the rewards for negotiating the tough undulations of this National Hunt course are similarly diminutive. Moore's Sharpgun collects pounds 288 for finishing second in the Evening Argus Challenge Cup, but then that is not so bad when the trainer charges only pounds 10 for the horsebox ride from Brighton.

Off the stopping trains from London, out of Range Rovers and battered Toyotas they tread to pay homage to Plumpton's prosaic pleasures. There are people who look like they have been drinking all weekend, people hopelessly overdressed for such muddy challenges, people who ask: 'do they still race if it rains?' It takes more than dirty skies to sink these country rounds.

Of quality there is little, of stories there are legion. Like the time a horse came hurtling down the far side so fast he continued into the railway station and on to Platform One. Of all the times the engine driver in his cockpit has forgotten the instruction from headquarters: make an extra stop at Plumpton for the racegoers. BR's blue livery callously rattling past.

Sixteen times a year the away-dayers from Victoria mingle among the county set at Plumpton and on Easter Monday, the August Bank Holiday and New Year's Eve there is barely room to swing a bookmaker. For the Burberry brigade, the day is like a point-to-point. For those who pack The Fountain and The Sun across the railway lines, the aim is to go from pint-to-pint.

At 2.30pm the groups converge under a marshmallow sky for a race between woefully limited three-year-old hurdlers. Double-breasted suits emerge from palatial BMWs, preceded by the smell of cologne and followed by wives guarding stockings against the muck. The labrador-owning classes watch disdainfully as picnic tables are hauled from the boots of less ostentatious cars.

And still they come, traipsing off trains (the ones that stop) and cramming the lanes, hungry for one last helping of leisure before offices, duties, reclaim them on Tuesday morning. Plumpton begins to feel like an overcrowded dinghy, and for the jockeys booting these elephantine beasts round and round the nine-furlong track the sense of danger must be similarly pronounced.

Through their descent on the far side you squeeze your race-card with anxiety, so fast, so freely do they tumble towards the low shacks of the train station. 'Tricky' is how the regulars here describe the two plain fences on the opposite side to the stands, and that is one of the more moderate euphemisms you will hear as you lean against a rail, queue for battle with a bookmaker.

Even Fred Winter, champion jockey and employee of the nearby Ryan Price stable, refused to ride at Plumpton after being regularly mashed by the hoofs of half-mad, half-blind steeplechasers, and it is no coincidence that the course's leading rider for many years was Ray Goldstein, who would do a bungy jump without the elastic cord for a decent day's pay. Adrian Maguire, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup last season, is something of a Plumpton specialist, but for the most part this place is a rider's equivalent of bare-knuckle fighting.

Not all the horses are slow or undistinguished. After his win in the seller yesterday, old Manhattan Boy has captured 11 races at Plumpton - he has never won anywhere else - and seems to provide Maguire with as much joy as any air-punching victory at a Cheltenham Festival. Manhattan Boy is what a track like Plumpton needs: a local hero, a bulwark against time and age and the comings and goings of horse racing.

Given the opportunity to buy one like him, Charlie Moore would probably throw in an extra tyre.

(Photograph omitted)