Racing: Holiday lure of bingo with legs

Greg Wood samples the special pleasures of racing by the seaside
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Drive along Yarmouth sea-front and you can hear the callers in two dozen bingo booths, tempting the trippers with a new game every five minutes, but for a few hours yesterday afternoon, it would not have been difficult to find an empty seat. En masse, it seemed, the holidaymakers had discovered a diversion with a difference, better than the pleasure beach or the crazy golf, and it tempted them away by the thousand. It was still bingo, perhaps, but bingo with legs.

Separated from the North Sea by nothing more than a caravan site, Yarmouth is as close as the British ever get to racing on the beach, and an afternoon at the track yesterday certainly had all the traditional elements of an English summer's day at the seaside.

There was the stubborn, grey cloud cover, the fierce gusts of wind raising goose pimples on unprotected arms, and even, cynics might add, plenty of donkeys to keep people amused. But that would be unfair to a course which is flat, undemanding and less than two hours in a horsebox from Newmarket. Serious trainers like Henry Cecil and John Gosden are very fond of a day trip to the Norfolk coast, and any number of horses with a big future ahead of them have taken their first tentative steps onto a track here.

It is a trend which David Hanson, the clerk of the course, does his best to encourage, with plenty of maiden races for the stars of tomorrow, but he is careful too to encourage the ever-changing customer base on his doorstep.

"What we've found is that people can only afford to come once to the races during their holiday," Hanson said, "so we split our days and have one-day meetings a week or two apart from July until the end of August. There's no dress-code here, it's fun and relaxed. Lots of tits and bare legs."

Like any other British resort which can guarantee deckchairs and a walk on the pier but not, unfortunately, any sunshine, Yarmouth has seen a generation of holidaymakers tempted abroad over the last 20 years.

"Of course, the numbers have dropped fantastically," Hanson said. "It's not that long since there would regularly be crowds of 10,000 for a meeting like this." Yesterday, less than 3,500 passed through the gates, though in all but the tiny members' enclosure, where a handful of ageing locals had found a refuge from the tourists, it felt like many more.

It was the holiday buzz that did it. Spectators at a humdrum midweek meeting tend to be people for whom racing is a way of life. Not so at Yarmouth, least of all in the Silver Ring, the cheapest enclosure, where the half-hourly passage of the horses was nothing more than a brief diversion from the serious business of taking it easy. The beach had come to the turf, with its squealing toddlers, the pensioners with their deck-chairs turned defiantly to the wind, and all the generations in between.

And from all areas too, as one glance at the enclosure confirmed. By their replica football shirts shall you know them, and they were not just from Wolverhampton and Coventry, but Cowdenbeath and Dundee too.

The easternmost point of the country it may be, but Yarmouth race course must have the most cosmopolitan crowd going. Not the richest, maybe, as the small collection of bookies in the Silver Ring (minimum bet, pounds 1) glumly confirmed, but then, since making money was not the point, they might just be the happiest crowd as well. Of that, the small track at the north end of a fading Norfolk tourist town can rightly be proud.