What else was I going to do on a cloudy Wednesday evening in May? On a late Spring afternoon, I set off for the last meeting of the jump season at Warwick Racecourse to continue my education in racing journalism.
It’s 9am Tuesday morning and my day job is just getting going. I’m teaching some A Level students about journalistic writing when my phone vibrates. I have a sneaky peak at the email that I’ve just received. Strictly speaking we have a no phones policy here but the older students and I have reached an understanding about that.
The message is from the Senior Communications Executive (West) at The Jockey Club and it’s a response to my request for media accreditation at Warwick races tomorrow night. She’s been out of the office and has only just had a chance to get back to me. At break, I move some things around in my diary and accept the invitation. It will be a couple of hours drive up to Warwick but I have a free period at the end of the day and I can get away from the college quickly.
I arrive in Shakespeare’s County under a pewter skyline. The rain has been falling in short bursts but it’s easing off now as I approach Warwick. I park on the lush fields on the inside of the track and this is where I get my first view of the racecourse and the grandstands.
As always, I’ve done my research. Warwick was the first course to include a jump race in its programme. Its roots can be traced all the way back to 1694 when the sport was introduced to the market town. The hope was that the racing would attract wealthy professionals after the devastating Great Fire of Warwick. Back then it was a town in need of a rebuild.
The main stand was built in 1809 and parts of it remain. As I cross the track I notice what is left of the squat stand hiding apologetically between the newer stands that dwarf it on either side. My imagination runs wild. What must it have been like to come to the races back then and stand on that terrace? I imagine myself at the track in 1967, watching Red Rum on the flat. Who would have predicted then what that horse would go on to achieve over the Grand National fences at Aintree?
Under the watchful gaze of the castle turrets, I cross the track and call Meg. Meg has sorted out my ticket and she has it waiting at the box office for me. My envelope says “photographer” on the front and this makes me smile. With my camera bag over my shoulder, I set off in search of the Jockey Club office. I don’t get very far. My ticket is still in the envelope when I am asked to present it to one of the stewards. She ridicules me for not being very prepared and I apologise for holding up a non-existent queue. It’s a fun welcome and I feel at home here.
The Jockey Club bought the track in 1967. They have hosted a brilliant calendar of jump racing at Warwick ever since. Racing begins in September and the season ends the following May. Tonight is the last meeting on this year’s calendar and I feel privileged to be here. To my left is the Jockey Club reception and I go on in to sign a couple of forms and collect my photography armband. Meg is busy somewhere and regrettably, I don’t get a chance to meet her on this occasion.
After I collect my “photographer” armband I make my way trackside to get set-up. There doesn’t seem to be a press box here so I resolve to work the parade ring, the betting ring, and the main stand overlooking the winning post. I’ll be getting my steps in this evening.
I feel overdressed in my suit and tie. The dress code at Warwick is nothing like Newbury a couple of weeks ago. I wonder if jump racing takes a more relaxed approach than flat racing in that regard. Certainly, the atmosphere is more relaxed and less exclusive. In many ways, I prefer it. The sun makes an effort to burst through and I head to the parade ring to get a glimpse of the horses coming out for the first race. I spend a few minutes working with the settings on my camera and take a few snaps before heading up to the grandstand. The grandstand offers me a decent shot of the final fence and the winning post. My lens is just about long enough to get a medium shot of the horses jumping the final flight.
The first race is won by 15-2 shot, Good News. Amateur jockey, Zac Baker rides a great race and, despite carrying 11-11 (second heaviest in the handicap), the ten-year-old fights off a strong challenge from Nicklesonthedime and Forward Plan to win by a couple of lengths.
On the concourse of the grandstand, I am politely asked to move on by one of the stewards. But, upon noticing my bright orange armband he apologises. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you were working.” His name is Pete and he turns out to be a genuinely nice guy. For a start, he hasn’t stolen my wallet! I dropped it as I photographed the winner of the first race a few seconds ago and he’s kind enough to tell me. He offers to store some of my equipment. I’m carrying a large bag and wearing too many layers. Gratefully, I accept and he finds a cupboard to lock some of my stuff away in. I thank him and head off to the parade ring for the next race.
In the parade ring, there is a significant gathering of syndicate members following Kerosine Light – a runner in the next race. The claret and white colours of Mark Kelly Racing are everywhere: on scarves, hats and claret coloured hair dye. The five-year-old top weight does not disappoint. Although challenged late on by Il Re Di Nessuno, Brian Hughes eases to victory. Maybe claret of a different kind will be flowing tonight.
As the meeting progresses, I post a few tweets from the course and these get a good number of likes and retweets. It’s the social media profile that drives traffic to the website so it’s important not to forget to reach out.
The raceday presenter is very old school. Tim Peters is the man entrusted with the microphone and he brings the presentations to life with his cultured pronunciation and racing knowledge. In his Crombie styled overcoat, he is every inch the archetypal racing gentry. Welcoming the winning owners to collect the prizes, Tim is in his element. I resolve to try and get a decent photo of him for the article, before I leave tonight.
Up on the grandstand I have a longer conversation with Pete. He tells me that he works at other courses in the north of England but only for the Jockey Club at Warwick. He’s got his work cut out tonight with a wedding party who are ‘three sheets to the wind’ but he handles them with a smile and gentle assertiveness.
The evening takes on a regular pattern and I find that I am much busier here than at Newbury a couple of weeks ago. Frustratingly, I struggle to hear the jockeys and owners being interviewed by Racing TV and miss out on useful quotes as a result. I’ll have to find a way to get around that in the future as direct quotes are a fundamental aspect of journalism. At this stage, I’m too reserved to ask if I can enter the parade ring to speak to owners and jockeys after each race. That is a question for another day.
In the commentary box, Martin Harris does an excellent job; I particularly enjoy listening to him summarise the races after he’s called the winners home. He clearly loves his job and the added detail he provides improves the experience.
I’m disappointed with myself when I almost miss a presentation to one of the jockeys. He is getting married in the Summer and I think that I hear that he is retiring as a jockey too. I don’t catch his name and there is nothing about it in the official racecard. He is presented with a bottle of Moet before the other jockeys throw a couple of buckets of water over him. I get a decent photo of this. A couple of kids are laughing and explaining to their dad what just happened, but he’s missed it. So, I show him and his girls the photo.
Towards the end of the evening a group of ladies ask me to take their photo and I oblige. They’re giggling and calling out to me. “Are you with the Mirror?” I hear something about The Sun and Page 3 but choose to ignore it. They are gripped by raucous laughter and experiencing fits of giggles when I catch them on camera. It’s great to see people at the races having so much fun.
The sun is peaking out between the clouds like a neighbourhood watch member peaking out from behind their curtains in a quiet little close: trying to not be seen. The change in light is making photography difficult but I decide that I have enough photographs for the article and pack the camera away.
It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable evening of racing. Warwick racecourse is brimming with character. Its enchanting. Tonight, a couple of horses have caught my eye and I make a mental note to keep an eye on their form.
After the last race, I say my goodbyes and hand back my armband in the office. It’s a three hour journey home but it’s been worth the trip. I take a couple of photos, from the other side of the track this time, before finding my car and heading off. I’ll be sure to get in touch with Meg at The Jockey Club tomorrow and thank her for sorting out my media pass. I hope to come back to Warwick in September. If you’ve not been…you should go. I’d love to see you there.