So we went to Goodwood to find out. Yes, I know, Peter Scudamore is a jump jockey and Goodwood is a flat racing course, but everybody has to start learning somewhere. It turns out that National Hunt racing and flat racing are almost mutually exclusive, flat racing being limited to the
summer - March to November - and racing 'over the sticks' going on for most of the year - currently August to June.
We had chosen the right day to appreciate Goodwood. Bright sunshine, a good breeze, and fluffy clouds to set off the blue sky. Approaching from the south, the Chichester side, you can see the grandstand nestling high above between folds in the Sussex Downs. The road climbs steeply and as you emerge from the trees at the top of the hill, the racecourse is right in front.
The first pleasure is the buzz of excitement that pervades the place. There are only about 18 race days at Goodwood during the season, so each one is a big occasion. The sense of anticipation is almost palpable as families get out their hampers and tables and start the serious business of the race-day picnic. The view stretches clear across to the Isle of Wight. In between, Chichester Harbour glints in the sunshine, studded with small boats. In the other direction, the bright green
ribbon of the track slashes across the Downs, loops away and round through the upland landscape. It has been described, with some justification, as the most beautiful racecourse in Europe.
Racing at Goodwood began when the third Duke of Richmond let the officers of the Sussex Militia use the Harroway (part of the Goodwood Estate) for their annual races, after they had lost the use of Petworth Park. The first public race took place in 1802.
My first surprise, upon entering the course, was to see what was clearly a finishing post standing at the left-hand end of the long straight. I thought racetracks comprised a complete loop, and that races were always run anti-clockwise, as in athletics.
It appears there is no standard direction, and at Goodwood, which is not a complete loop, the horses run round a sweeping right-hand bend (or for longer races even a mini figure-of-eight) before entering the finishing straight. One attraction of the sport is that no two racecourses are alike, so that each lends its individual character to the racing.
For a beginner, finding out where to stand is the first test. We had tickets for the Richmond Enclosure, which turns out to be the top-class end near the finishing post (dress code: jacket and tie, enforced rigorously - you can buy a yellow and maroon striped course tie here).
There are lots of traditional touches at a racecourse. At Peter Symmonds' Old-Fashioned Fairings you can buy boiled sweets with flavours such as aniseed and cloves. Where the bookmakers have their pitches are piles of
wooden plinths which can be stacked to create a stall or a
Each bookie erects a pole with his name on a board at the top and hangs beneath it a large leather case, with a chrome metal top, to carry the takings. Now garishly emblazoned with the owners' names, these look as if they are doctors' medical bags enjoying a second career. The pitch-bookmakers have rightly eschewed technology and laptops, and stick to the classic method of recording all bets placed by hand in a ledger.
It was getting towards the time of the first race and we still had to learn where to stand and how to bet. You'd expect the area around the finishing post to be crowded, but at this stage there was hardly a soul around.
Most racegoers like to have a good look at the horses before they get on the track: as they circle the parade ring you can ascertain whether your preferred horse got out of its stall on the right side that morning.
The jockeys emerge from the weighing room and join the owners at the centre of the ring, then find their rides and mount, often checking with the stable lads and lasses how the horses have been shaping up.
Many people don't bother to watch the race at all. It does consist of rather a lot of craning to watch a tiny knot of distant horses with no way of seeing which is ahead, followed by a hectic last 10 seconds as they race to the finish. But it is impressive to be at the rail as they thunder past, hooves flinging up great divots of turf.
For six-furlong races at Goodwood you cannot see the start - it's at the far end of the straight beyond a hump in the track - so for the first few
seconds of the race only the commentary tells you they're running. Then the jockeys appear over the crest and it's a sprint to the finish.
There is little point in going racing if you are not going to bet. A dozen horses flashing past the post is pretty much like any other dozen horses flashing by if you have nothing at stake.
There's a guide to betting in the excellent race card (pounds 1) which gives all the information on the runners, riders and
colours. But it assumes you know all about how the odds work, and does not explain the different options for choosing where to make your bet. It's easy to be confused.
As the start of the race approaches the pitch bookies adjust their prices with much frantic waving of arms and exaggerated grimacing, but you get the odds from the time that you place your bet. If you bet with the Tote the odds are not given in advance but are worked out from the proportion of money going on each horse from this and other computer-linked counters all over the country.
A tip came in first at 11-2, paying us pounds 6.60 plus our stake back for our pounds 2 each-way bet. Limiting other bets to pounds 2 per race, we finished only pounds 8 down for the day - not bad when you consider we'd had to learn from scratch. You can easily convince yourself that you have a knack for spotting the on-form horse just by watching its demeanour in the parade ring.
But from such beginnings are mug punters born every minute.
Information: Goodwood Racecourse (0243 774107).
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