I was 11 years old when I bought my first book on racing. It was Easter 1956, I wanted some reading matter for a long train journey, and the station bookstall at Exeter Central had nothing on football to offer me. It was, of course, the wrong time of year for such an item, so my shilling was invested in what for me represented a novelty – the News Chronicle Racing Annual.
By the time I reached my destination, having devoured that slim volume from cover to cover, I had acquired a new passion. I had neither the means nor the desire to become a punter, so Captain Heath’s Twelve to Follow was not something I spent much time over, but there were features on jockeys that sparked my interest, and the section on winners of principal races really grabbed me.
This was clearly a sport whose season was punctuated by an extensive list of major events and they took place every year, many of them steeped in history.
Cricket had history – 70-odd years of Test matches, but there were only five of them each summer. Football had been going for 80-odd years, but it was only the Cup Final – a once-a-year occasion – that mattered much to me beyond following the fortunes of my local club. Was there more to tennis than Wimbledon? If there was, it had passed me by. I quite liked boxing, but there was no pattern to it. Big fights came along irregularly and I’d found no subject for hero-worship.
In 1957 I was among the 6,774 who saw my beloved Exeter beat Torquay on Christmas Day
Racing, it seemed to me, had a lot to offer – so many courses, all with different characteristics, and an ordered programme of events that had evidently stood the test of time. That was what fascinated me above all else, the fact that so many races had been staged, year on year, for decades, some of them for centuries. That continuity meant they had to matter. In five or six hours of that rail journey I had not just become a racing fan; I was already a traditionalist.
It was 1958 before I got around to actually setting foot on a racecourse, but by then most of the proceeds of my paper round had been routinely committed to acquiring further volumes on racing, and what had grabbed my attention on day one still dominated. It was the history of the sport that I focussed on and I was probably the only 13-year-old in the country who had memorised the names of all the Derby winners since Diomed won the first in 1780.
That probably made me the arch-traditionalist, and 55 years later that is still my usual standpoint. (And, yes, I can still recite the names of all the Derby winners since 1780, though, ironically, I might stumble over some of the more recent ones, heroes of races I’ve actually witnessed.)
I have registered many objections – all of them futile, of course – to changes made to historical races both at home and overseas, deploring the reduction in distance of numerous high-profile events in North America and of the Prix du Jockey-Club in France. And I’m still not about to forgive those who removed the Champion Stakes from Newmarket and turned it into something completely different at Ascot.
But none of that means I don’t ever support change. When a number of prominent trainers – Noel Murless included – railed against the introduction of starting stalls, I was in the ‘pro’ camp. I castigated the Jockey Club for denying women a licence to train, was supportive of the campaign to allow female riders, and rejoiced when those barriers came down. I was a keen advocate for all-weather racing – perhaps a bit too keen, given that I anticipated far better quality sport on that surface than we have ever seen.
And I was a strong proponent of Sunday racing long before it was finally sanctioned. It is hard to imagine now that no on-course betting was allowed when it was introduced in 1992, and that it was 1995 before a Sunday fixture could be held on the same terms as a meeting on any other day of the week.
In light of the fact that until last month nobody had ever seriously suggested there should be racing on Good Friday, I am not on record as having expressed an opinion on the subject, but I do so now. I can see no legitimate objection to the idea, and if Arena Racing Company is able to make a Lingfield Park meeting on that day a special occasion, then jolly good luck to them. A run-of-the-mill meeting just to fill a blank day might be hard to justify, but a championship fixture as the culmination of a richly-endowed series of winter all-weather races – which is what ARC proposes – is a different matter altogether.
The BHA has said that it will entertain applications for Good Friday fixtures, judging them on their merits, and if ARC can show it is able to deliver on its promise, the authority will surely have to look kindly on a scheme providing a substantial increase in prize-money in an area where it is sorely needed.
Of course, there have been objections, one of them being that in recent years stables in Lambourn and Middleham have staged very popular open days on Good Friday. The proposed Lingfield fixture might well impact on the Lambourn event, and if Musselburgh were to be granted that date for its proposed mixed meeting, Middleham’s function might seem less of an attraction.
But those open days do not have the force of long tradition and it is not as though alternative dates could not be found; there are plenty of Sundays that would serve their purpose equally well. After more than a decade without an open day Newmarket revived the event with great success last year on a September Sunday, and by the time you read this the 2013 event at HQ will no doubt have proved just as attractive.
Nobody is obliged to go racing on any day and those who feel strongly that a Good Friday fixture is inappropriate will naturally exercise their option to stay away. That’s fair enough, but a race fixture does not deprive anyone of the opportunity to worship.
My invariably well-informed Racing Post colleague Bill Barber, when addressing the subject in a column last month, took a positive line on the proposal, but, at a tangent, was at pains to scotch any idea of racing on Christmas Day. “It won’t happen,” he wrote, quite unequivocally.
Well, Bill, I’m happy to concede that we are not ready for that now and that it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I wouldn’t care to be quite so adamant that it’s never going to happen.
I find it odd that whereas England has unquestionably become a far more secular society in the last half-century Christmas Day is kept more sacrosanct than it was then. League football used to be played on December 25, and it attracted large crowds, as was to be expected on a public holiday.
In 1957 I was among the 6,774 at Plainmoor who saw my beloved Exeter City beat Torquay United 3-1 on Christmas Day. I was a bit too young to care in 1946 when the team recorded what remains its record away win – 6-1 at Brighton, also a December 25 fixture.
Just why League football on Christmas Day became a no-no, I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that it was on religious grounds. I suspect it was all about the lack of public transport provided. Whereas there always used to be additional trains to cope with the demand, the service became depleted, then non-existent. I dare say transport workers wanted more money, or simply the time off, and the railway companies took what must have seemed an obvious decision.
Then, as now, most football supporters travelled by public transport. Today’s typical racegoer is a motorist; lack of a rail service will have no effect, either on Good Friday next year or on Christmas Day in the future.