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Diary of a racing journalist #1 – Newbury Races

What else was I going to do with a free Saturday in May? On a hazy late Spring morning, I set off early for Ladies’ Day at Newbury races to try my hand at racing journalism.

It’s Monday morning and, with the football season coming to an end, I’m wondering what to do with myself this weekend. I fire off an email to Newbury racecourse and within a couple of hours, I’ve arranged a seat in the press room. This is my first-time reporting at the races, and I am beyond excited.

I spend the first part of the week researching the meeting. The feature race is the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes and the favourite, Baaeed is set to be a superstar. He’s won six in a row and a win on Saturday would make it a magnificent seven.

It’s a busy week in my ‘day job’ and I’m struggling to find the time for any more research about Saturday’s meeting and horse racing in general. I listen to the Racing Post podcasts in the car on my way to work and learn plenty. Mostly, I learn that I am a relative novice. I learn about the trials for the Derby and the Oaks and make a mental note to make sure that I am at Epsom for both of those.

It’s later in the week and I’m starting to feel nervous about this. I know what I’m doing when I report at a football ground but don’t have a clue where to start with the sport of kings. I take a few deep breaths, get my phone out, and start to plan. I check the racecourse website and discover that there are lots of things going on for Ladies Day.

Dani Jackson will become the first female on-track race caller in the UK for over a decade when she calls the Injured Jockey Fund Charity Race at 12.35. Then, at 12.45, there’s an opportunity to hear from a panel of female sporting pioneers. On the panel will be the top female flat jockey, Hollie Doyle, Manchester United Captain and England Lioness Katie Zelem, and Olympic Champion Curler, Eve Muirhead. I realise that it’s going to be a busy day.

I get to the racecourse too early. It’s 10am and the gates don’t open until 11. I spend a little time sat in the car working on social media and tap out a few paragraphs to save time later. It’s a long hour.

Once inside, I have no trouble sorting out my press badge. The staff at the course are very helpful and point me in the right direction.

The Berkshire stand is five stories high and overlooks the finish line at Newbury. The ‘Sir Peter O’Sullivan’ press box is on the fifth floor and the view is stunning.

Up in the press room, Dani Jackson is preparing to call the charity race. She seems calm and assured. I smile at her and she reciprocates. I think how difficult it must be to call a live race. Things change so quickly over the final few furlongs, and you need to be able to spot what is happening and relay that back to the crowd accurately. But this is not something that is new to Dani. She has been commentating for over ten years on greyhound racing and has guest commentated in the U.S. I find a quote from her in the official race card.

“I’m very excited and honoured to be involved with this new initiative and be named the first female commentator as part of Newbury’s brand-new programme to help build a pathway for more female voices into horse racing commentary.”

I make my way down to the parade ring for the charity race and resist the temptation to have a flutter. I honestly haven’t got a clue who will win and I’m not here to lose money. I quickly discover that wearing a media pass and walking around with a decent camera on Ladies’ Day is a recipe for disaster. I’m asked a number of times by groups to take photographs of them, but I politely decline…most of the time.

The charity race is fittingly won by a woman. Isabel Spearman, 43, is a brand consultant from Wiltshire. On Danville, she races clear in the final furlong. Then, there are hugs all around in the unsaddling enclosure. She is passionate about the Injured Jockeys Fund and is a worthy winner. Dani Jackson has called the winner home beautifully and I look forward to hearing more from her in future.

Isabel Spearman following her victory in the Injured Jockey’s Fund Charity Race at Newbury on Saturday

I snap a few more photos and then head back up to the press box for a coffee and a sandwich. I observe and listen as the ‘proper racing press’ go about their business and make notes about what I should be doing next time. In the meantime, I write a story about Hollie Doyle’s chances of becoming the next British Flat Racing Champion Jockey and publish it on my racing website.

The first race of the meeting is an absolute cracker and I get a decent photograph at the finish. A horse called Tiber Flow bravely holds off the fast-finishing Ehraz and triumphs in a photo finish by a nose. The winning horse is trained by William Haggas and he will go on to win the second race too. He’s got Baaeed in the big race later and I’m thinking it’s going to be a good night in the Haggas household if that one wins.

After my sandwich, I head down to the stage for the pioneers’ panel and hear Eve Muirhead talk about the times that she almost gave up and how resilient she needed to be to become an Olympic champion. I snap a few shots for the article when I am approached by a Newbury Racecourse official. “Who are you taking photos for?” he asks, and I immediately think I’m in trouble. I offer a weak response that I think will only compound my embarrassment, but I’ve got the wrong end of the stick completely. He tells me that he is responsible for marketing and asks if I could send him some photos of the panel discussion. I say that I will, but he’s already spotted the photographer who was supposed to be documenting the event and he is making a beeline for him. I relax and start to feel more at home in the role and less of an imposter.

Eve Muirhead (centre) captivates Dani Jackson (left) and Katie Zelem (right).

Back in the press room, there is a bit more of a buzz now. The Lockinge Stakes is fast approaching and everyone can’t wait to see if Baaeed really is the next superstar; the next Frankel.

Salmon is being served for lunch but I’m more than happy scoffing the rest of my complimentary packed lunch as I continue to write. I publish my second post of the day before heading out onto the balcony to watch the BetVictor London Gold Cup Handicap Stakes which is won by the 3/1 favourite, Israr. Jim Crowley’s mount holds off the challenge of Surrey Mist strongly to win by half a length. Israr may now head to Ascot for the King George V, a race for three-year-olds over 1 mile 3 furlongs and 211 yards. Israr’s trainer, Thady Gosden (one half of the John and Thady Gosden training team), confirms my thoughts, “We will see how he comes out of the race and the King George V would seem an obvious spot for him.” Israr’s Jockey, Jim Crowley is also confident Israr will stay further, adding: “He was pretty straightforward and showed plenty of guts. I think he’ll get a bit further.”

I decide to have a break before the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes which is due off in twenty-five minutes. We’re almost halfway through the card already and I need to gather myself for the races ahead. I go to the bathroom and then take a stroll down to the paddock to get a glimpse of Baaeed ahead of the Lockinge. He looks every inch a superstar. In front of the grandstands the crowds are enjoying themselves. The dresses are flowing, as are the drinks; the ice-creams are melting as quickly as they can be licked. Groups of people are stretching out on the lush grass and making the most of the sunshine. I hear the bell for the jockeys to mount their horses and head up to the balcony to enjoy the race.

Any doubts about Baaeed’s class are laid to rest and the odds on favourite storms away from Real World to win by three and a quarter lengths. On this form, he is nailed on for the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot. I discover later that Baaeed’s trainer, William Haggas, had been nervous before the race.

“I had a few nerves. I’m not really like that, but it is all you fellas building him up and putting us under pressure,” he laughed, before going on to share the news that his daughter was about to give birth in Dubai “which is far more important”.

I’m starting to get the hang of this now and settling into a bit of a routine. I’m not competing to get the latest news out quickly, so I relax a bit and take in the next three races while making a start on this piece.

Persian Force wins the next: The BetVictor Conditions Stakes, in great style and I get a cracking photo at the finishing line. He will likely head for The Coventry Stakes at Ascot now and will no doubt prove he is among the best two-year-olds over six furlongs.

Dinner is served in the press box and a few reporters have packed up and gone home. I guess that they were here only to report on The Lockinge but I can’t be certain. There is a little more chat up here now but I keep a low profile. It’s early days for me at this and I’m not sure how to play it.

I’m asked my name by one of the press guys and I tell him who I am. He asks who I am reporting for and I tell him that I’m just getting started with reporting on racing. He wishes me good luck and I feel like I am starting to belong.

Hollie Doyle wins the sixth race and I’m quietly delighted. In my earlier piece, I had written that she would have a tough day and that her only chance of a winner would be on Nashwa in the 4.30. The three-year-old filly will probably contest the Oaks at Epsom and she will be in with a decent chance.

One of the reporters in the press room is celebrating his twentieth year at his paper and he’s brought everyone in the press room a glass of bubbly. He’s a classy guy and the others in the room clearly have a great deal of respect for him.

I watch the last race from the balcony and it’s another close one. The race is a Class 2 handicap for four-year-olds-plus. It’s another winner for Jim Crowley as his mount, Muraad, edges out Top Secret under Hollie Doyle.

Back at my computer, I put in a good hour’s work. I don’t even notice as the FA Cup final reaches half-time on the television screens around me. The afternoon is drawing to a close and the evening festivities are just getting going. By now, most racegoers have gone home but those that are still here are here to party. There’s a big screen with the football on and I watch most of the second half before heading out, back to my car, and home. What else was I going to do with a free Saturday, in May?