By Xander Brett, Travel Editor
Our racing correspondent shares his favourite tracks within easy reach of the city centre... and gives his tips for this year's flat season.
There’s jumping at Exeter and, deep in Wales, Bristol must be the only English city close enough to reach the mixed outpost at Ffos Las. But, just twelve miles inland, at 780ft above sea level, Bath is the country’s highest flat course. Its terrain can’t support a watering system, so going can get firm here. “Good to concrete” is how a fellow racegoer put it as the bus rolled in. I was at the second meeting of the year, and one of the racecourse’s signature free days, with registration online (only) giving thousands of racegoers a complimentary ticket by email.
Speaking to me in the paddock, clerk of the course Dai Jones (who also heads Ffos Las Racecourse) said free entry was designed to bring crowds back to the site’s day, twilight and evening cards. “It’s basically a payback”, he explained. “It’s a thank you to everyone who came last year, and an encouragement for people to return.” Arena Racing Company, who own Bath Racecourse, have trialled the day at other venues… in this case helped by good weather and a big name in Hollie Doyle, fresh from her much-covered power wedding.
Taunton and Wincanton, deeper in the Somerset countryside, secure this region as a jump racing heartland. Just fifty miles from Lambourn, they’re designed for winter mud and barrels of beer, with cheap tickets dished out to form local meetings of farmers and workers. Top trainers send horses, though, with representatives testing these Cheltenham practice circuits. Those tests come too at Chepstow, just over the Severn Bridge. This course is home to the Grade 3 Welsh Grand National, and it often sends runners to both the big race at Aintree, and to the spin offs in Scotland and Ireland.
Testing terrain here makes for ideal jump racing, but the course – perhaps surprisingly – maintains a flat option alongside. I came for the Six Nations jumps day in February, and in April I returned for a flat card (both times missing the regular university ‘invades’ meetings that jam stands with my badly behaved peers).
Chepstow gets soft in the winter, the bottom dip can drag, and broadcaster Robert ‘Sir Bob’ Cooper points out the straight mile undulations. “Some horses like it,” he explains to me, “some don’t. The ones who take to it might not do well anywhere else, but they keep coming back here.” Trainer Malcolm Saunders (who runs a yard in Wells) tells me it’s always nice to visit local tracks, rather than getting stuck in traffic for hours on end. At Newton Abbot, where I’ll be racing next week, jockeys say they feel the same.
ITV make very few stops in the region. That means, despite specialist coverage, the region suffers from terrestrial neglect. But these are familiar courses for small name horses. And it’s at these homes, where warmth trumps grandiosity, the industry can engage with a down-to-earth public.
Xander's Tips: The 2022 Flat Seson
There are many good things about summer... cocktails, holidays.. and, of course, the return of flat racing. On 13th April, the British curtain opener at Newmarket – The Craven Stakes – introduced this year's three-year-old star: Native Trail. With William Buick onboard, there'll be no getting past him in this afternoon's 2000 Guineas. Any competition, indeed, comes only from his stablemate, Coroebus, and that, I hope, cements the moment Charlie Appleby triumphs over six-time champion trainer Aidan O'Brien.
Appleby has Wild Beauty in the 1000 Guineas tomorrow. She disappointed in October, but more than made up over 7f at Newbury this month (her first run of the season). If she can step up to the distance tomorrow, we may well see her in the Oaks this June. Meanwhile, Native Trail looks certain to pop into the Derby a day later, made extra-special this year amidst the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. But, before that, the Dante Festival begins in two weeks, running from 11th-13th May... that's after the Kentucky Derby (Sky Sports Racing) a week today. Alongside the Appleby/O'Brien rivalry, we'll be seeing more of the John Gosden/Frankie Dettori partnership this season, with the 51-year-old already victorious aboard Country Grammer in the Dubai World Cup (Racing TV/Sky Sports Racing) last month.
With eight group ones, 400 helicopters and royalty in attendance, Royal Ascot returns to full 300,000 capacity from 14th-18th June. That's followed by Glorious Goodwood from 26th-30th July, and the season culminates with the St. Leger (Britain's oldest classic) on 10th September. Then, in an encore, we go to Paris for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (ITV/Sky Sports Racing), and the Melbourne Cup (Sky Sports Racing) rounds off the year.
Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett