Racing: Windsor takes leap out of jumping

The end of National Hunt racing at the royal track by the Thames sends a warning chill through the winter game
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The Independent Online
NATIONAL HUNT racing fell off the perch here yesterday when Nordansk finished last in the seventh race, the Norwegian Blue Handicap Hurdle. After 130 years, jumping is now an ex-element of racing by the father Thames.

The skies, appropriately, were a solemn grey and the numbers which filed through the turnstiles into the racecourse on Rays Meadow seemed barely greater than an East End funeral cortege. And that has been Windsor's problem during the colder months.

Over the winter, Windsor struggles to compile paying crowds of four figures. When the track's owners studied a further set of figures, at the bottom of a balance sheet, jumps racing was doomed. Over pounds 100,000 was spent on track renovations earlier in the year and then the investment stopped.

To the diehards it is a decision difficult to accept. Trainers and jockeys admire Windsor's condition and configuration. Thorough enthusiasts enjoy watching the rawness of the sport at its basement and pure level: big fields of well-matched if mediocre animals.

It is difficult to imagine a mixed racecourse with a greater gulf between its winter and summer crowds. Windsor's Monday evening Flat meetings are Berkshire's versions of the Square Mile wine bar, a place where the blue shirts and braces come to wrestle with champagne after another hard day's making money. Sometimes they even watch the horses. There are, however, 6,000 of them each night.

Hugo Bevan retired with his track yesterday after 16 years as clerk of the course. He might consider himself lucky to be still around with his head joined to the shoulders as he once spilled Dubonnet over the Queen Mother in these environs.

The closure will limit options for racing's so-called favourite owner. When she pops round to her Liz's big, draughty place on the hill there will be no more sneaking down to the royal track after lunch.

The Queen Mother's last victory here was with Easter Ross in a hurdle race just over 12 months ago. That winner's trainer, Nicky Henderson, has been one of the critics of the Windsor jumping demise. "It's a terrible shame because it's a really nice National Hunt course," the Lambourn man said yesterday. "It's good for London, it's good for owners and, sure, it's good for us. It's a matter of how hard they want to try [to keep jumping going].

"On recent statistics it's the second worst course in the country for the executive putting in prize-money. It's not their priority. They're just not National Hunt orientated.

"How do Plumpton and Fontwell survive when this can't? The difference is that they want to make it happen.

"It's all terrifying for the future. We want to hand this game over to the next generation in good condition."

Terry Biddlecombe, who rode his 900th winner here, agreed. "It's a great shame," the husband and assistant trainer to Henrietta Knight said. "It's a very fair galloping track with great variety for everyone concerned. The fences are always good and the whole place is presented properly. To lose a course like this is a great loss for National Hunt racing. We need places like this. It's one of the saddest days."

Trainers will now lose a swirling figure-of-eight course, which was rather bewildering for the spectating newcomer (we must now use the past tense). In common with the school over the bridge, promising, well-connected cadets were sent here, as the fences were considered beautiful education for a young steeplechaser.

There were the good horses, most notably winners of Windsor's premier event, the New Year's Day Hurdle. Ruddy faced, and ruddy-nosed, racegoers were able to witness wins in that contest for Comedy Of Errors, Celtic Ryde and Celtic Shot. It was for great herds of lesser horses however that Windsor became notable. It attracted the second highest average number of horses per race.

It is an irony of closure that it is executed under the stewardship of the Cheveley Park Stud's owners, David and Trish Thompson. Their interest in National Hunt racing has dwindled over the years, yet the victory of Party Politics in the 1992 Grand National remains as their greatest Turf moment.

Nottingham's jumping ceased two years ago and Lingfield will go the way of Windsor in the New Year. You might consider this a trend. "If I fielded pounds 3,000 turnover for the day here it would be the norm and even on a poor day at Plumpton and Fontwell you'd field pounds 9,000," Barry Dennis, the leading bookmaker, said yesterday. "There just aren't the people gambling because there aren't the people coming in.

"There's not much future for jumping at tracks like this. In racing, like any other sport, it's bums on seats that count. This isn't the last jumps course to go."

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