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Brighton Races Rock!

My first visit to Brighton Racecourse for an afternoon race meeting is delightful and further proof that you don’t need a card full of Group 1 and Listed Races to put on a great meeting. I reflect on a great day’s racing on The South Downs and reconnect a little with the sport that I love to write about.

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What else was I going to do on the day before my 50th birthday? With a little welcome drizzle on the car windscreen, I set off down the A27 towards Brighton for a day at the races.

Arena Racing Company (ARC) have granted me permission to attend today and I am very grateful to them for allowing me do so. I follow my instructions and collect my entrance badge and race day programme. ARC have really looked after me today and I have a complimentary drink and lunch which I enjoy as I settle down to start researching the history of the course.

I learn that the racecourse originates back to 1783 and it’s most prosperous times were in the second half of the 19th Century, aided by the coming of the railway. In it’s earlier years, the Prince of Wales (George IV) attended and returned year on year for a while.

Famously, the course features in Grahame Greene’s 1938 novel, Brighton Rock, where it is the setting for a brutal gang fight – which is about as far away from today’s friendly atmosphere that you could imagine.

The racecourse boomed after the second world war but suffered challenging times later in the decade as the traditional seaside holiday gave way to family holidays abroad, in turn leading to smaller crowds. The course’s revival was confirmed when Northern Racing took over and spent £4 million on facilities in 1998. The media partnership between the current owners ARC and Sky Sports seems destined to improve the course’s standing even further.

The track is unusual by modern standards in that it is not a complete loop. The 1 mile and 4 furling course starts low down in the downs and rises to the summit of Whitehawk Hill at the four furlong pole. There are some twists and turns on the way up the hill and position is crucial. A steep descent brings horse and jockey down to the two-furlong pole where, like Epsom Downs, there is a sharp rise to the winning post.

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Tony Carroll has more wins at Brighton Racecourse than any other trainer and he’s got Pop Dancer in the first. He’s 11/2 in the racecard. However, I quite fancy the Irish bred, Porfin, trained by Phil McEntee and ridden by Molly Presland. She’s claiming an extra 8lb but carrying a penalty. I prefer horses that are going up in class to those who are going down in class and this is the case with Porfin.

My selection is the kiss of death for Porfin who is badly hampered early on and never really recovers. Tony’s horse fares much better. Pop Dancer under Aidan Keeley jumps well and attempts to make all. He is caught in the final 100 yards and beaten in a photo by Haveoneyourself, the outsider of the field.

The second race becomes more interesting with a late jockey change. Aidan Keeley replaces Sean Levey on Richard Hannon’s Lady Amanda and with Aidan’s grandfather Brian Rouse in the crowd, I take this as a significant move. I head over to the paddock to have a look at Hannon’s debutant.

Lady Amanda is an impressive filly, relatively tall and lean for a sprinter. She might be aimed at a longer trip in time. She’s a little Coltish, which is understandable and arrives behind the others to the parade ring. Red Treasure, Hollie Doyle’s mount, looks fantastic and it’s easy to see why she might be going off odds on favourite.

I find a great spot on the busy grandstand; I’m directly in line with the winning post and have a great view down the track. The downs rise up in the distance and give way to the sea behind, framing the perfect backdrop to the drama that is about to unfold.

Lady Amanda is held up at the rear and tracks Red Treasure through four furlongs of the six. With two furlongs to go, Hollie Doyle takes Red Treasure to the front and it looks like it is all over. Lady Amanda is losing ground and her race is run. I know she will come on for this debut race and that I’ll be adding her name to my race tracker.

Just as it looks like Hollie Doyle has the race in the bag, the grey horse, Georgiava challenges down the outside and gets up on the line to defeat the odds on favourite and I put my tipping career on hold.

The third race on the card is a selling handicap. I consider buying the winner but I’m about £4000 short of the asking price of four grand!

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Only five go to post for this one and I check them out from the paddock beforehand. The 8 year old mare, Mercers, is getting uptight and she goes down early.

Tony Carroll’s Red Alert is well fancied and duly wins at 9-4. After jumping brightly, Clifford Lee holds him up before unleashing the 8-year-old gelding two furlongs out. He makes his way swiftly to the front and stays on well to win by a couple of lengths.

As this is a selling handicap, as per the rules Red Alert is put up for sale. At eight, he goes unsold. The second placed mare, Minhaaj is snapped up for £6800 and this looks like a good price to me.

Before the fourth race, a maiden for 3+ years, I stop for a pint in the owners and trainer’s bar. I take my beer out front and have a sit down. I’ve opposed the favourite online, so I’m delighted when Ischia is pipped at the post by a nose. Masterclass, ridden by Callum Shepherd, is the winner.

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In the paddock, Masterclass’ winning jockey gives an interview to At The Races’, Jason Weaver. “I thought I might just have won. My previous rides here didn’t give me much cause for optimism,” says Shepherd talking about the tight finish.

The Brighton specialist, Tony Carroll, has two more in the fifth race and they’re among the favourites. I can’t quite pick a winner so instead I lay local fans’ favourite Junoesque, whose odds I believe do not reflect her chances in this one.

It’s not a straight forward race at all as Temur Khan’s chances are badly hampered by Harry Davies on Hidden Pearl. Although the winner is declared and there is no steward’s inquiry, Hidden Pearl’s trainer is called to the weighing room soon after the race. I suspect that this is linked to the coming together. Temur Khan has managed to recover and get up for second but it’s clear to me that he is the best horse in the race and should have won.

Largo Bay is declared the winner and the reault stands. A delighted owner, Joe Lane, gives a wonderful interview to Jason Weaver on Sky, who later in the afternoon, describes Largo Bay’s win as the “highlight of his day.” I’m happy too. Junoesque has struggled up the hill and I’m a few quid better off.

Only three runners go to post for the penultimate race which is won by Saffie Osborne on Amarillo Gold, trained by her father Jamie. Despite the small field, this is a very competitive race indeed and it’s hard to pick a winner. Osborne rides brilliantly on the 2-year-old gelding, Amarillo Gold who turns the tables on Sweet Fortune, a filly that got the better of him 10 days ago.

“Dad’s horses haven’t been firing this year,” Saffie Osborne admits to Jason Weaver with a broad smile before going on to say with certainty that the yard would bounce back strongly. Osborne is riding better than ever and claiming just 3lb these days.

The final race of the day is an absolute cracker. Marco Ghiani drives State Secretary home although it’s as tight a photo as you can get and I’m not convinced by the result looking at the photo. It looks to me like Madrinho has got his nose level and a dead heat should be the result. Tony Carroll’s chestnut gelding is denied a share of the spoils.

I listen to Marco Ghiani give a short interview to Jason Weaver, grab a coffee ‘to go’ and head out to the car. I sit for a few minutes and write the final couple of paragraphs of this draft.

I’ve seen a lot of racing lately and travelled to a host of racecourses. I’ve sat a mile up in the sky in well furnished press boxes and felt a long way from the action. While that’s great for getting an objective view, it’s a bit like sitting on the stairs as a child at an adults only party, watching your parents enjoy themselves downstairs and dying to be part of it. You can see what’s going on but you can’t quite hear it. You’re not part of it.

Here at Brighton, there is an intimacy. Staff, jockeys and racing connections walk around with smiles on their faces and it’s infectious. Whilst I’m not expecting to have seen the next Derby or Oaks winner here today, there’s no shortage of quality on show and I’ve had a great day. I feel like I’ve reconnected. Tomorrow, I turn fifty. Today, I feel like I’ve had my birthday present early.

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