When I was a child horse racing was one of those things that I seem to recall always being on the telly, but yet I don’t recall watching it. The same goes for wrestling. I was watching Back in Time for Tea the other day and they were showing clips of the old World of Sport featuring people like Big Daddy. I instantly recognised him and knew who he was, but knew nothing about wrestling as a whole and no recollection of watching the programme. The same goes for horse racing. I knew who John McCririck was, but don’t think I ever watched racing.
The first time I ever felt a desire to go to the races was when I watched Michael Palin do his Round the World in 80 Days television series. I absolutely loved that programme, and even now have it on DVD. It was the first thing that ever inspired me to want to go travelling and see the world. I loved the places that Palin went to and the people that he met, and imagined myself following in his footsteps one day. The episode that most enthralled me was the one in which he visited Hong Kong. There was just something about the city that made me desperate to go there. All the hustle and bustle, the nightlife, the street markets, the views from the peak and the prospect of a trip on the star ferry between the islands.
The one bit of the programme that most jumped out at me was when he went to Happy Valley racecourse. As a child I was brought up in South Yorkshire, so was familiar with Doncaster racecourse from attending various exhibitions and similar there. To me Doncaster was always surrounded by green space, but at Happy Valley you had skyscrapers around the racecourse as it is very much part of the city landscape there. I was completely mesmerised and made it my mission to go to a race meet there one day.
Fast forward quite a few years and I found myself living and working in Gloucestershire. As almost anyone there will know when the Cheltenham Festival comes around the place goes slightly bonkers. The bars are filled, hotels and guest houses full, and the roads are an absolute nightmare. But, as someone pointed out, you can’t live near Cheltenham and not go to the Gold Cup, so that’s exactly what I did with my work colleagues one year. I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the atmosphere was amazing. Such a buzz in the crowd, lots of people having a great time, and I even managed to come away with more money than I’d arrived with. Heck, writing about it now has me asking when is Cheltenham Festival 2018? and can I find an old friend nearby to stay with!
For my second trip to the races I was lucky enough to fulfil my Happy Valley ambition. We went to Hong Kong for a week’s holiday and planned to visit an old school friend of mine who lives there. In an exchange of emails before we arrived I mentioned my desire to go to Happy Valley and she responded to say that her and her boyfriend were members. Bingo. Off to the races we went and I’m delighted to say that it fulfilled all my expectations. We went to a night meeting and being there, looking out over the racecourse with the lit up Hong Kong skyline in the background was amazing. As was the tram ride to get there (have I ever mentioned the fact that Hong Kong use the old Glasgow trams?) It’s an experience that I would love to have again.
After Hong Kong it would be hard to beat that trip to the races, but I think I may have almost managed it with a trip up to Newcastle for my best friend’s hen do. Her sisters managed to organise it for lady’s day and so we all dressed up, put on our best frocks and hats and headed off, hoping that our heels wouldn’t end up ruined by having to stand on grass. To be honest, I don’t actually remember whether we stood on grass or not, but I do recall it being the most amazing of days, with so much laughter and excitement. The highlight had to be actually meeting John McCririck though! There he was, standing near us, commentating for one of the racing channels. So, with a bit of Dutch courage inside us, we all went over and announced how we all needed to have our photos taken with us. It was very much before selfies were all the rage, but I’m pleased to say that he was utterly delightful and obliged us with a smile. It may not have been the racing that was my lasting memory of that particular trip but John McCririck seemed to make our day.