Posted: 12/6/2006


  It was June 4th, 1913 and Emily Davison was on a dangerous mission. It was Derby Day at Epsom Racecourse in front of a royal audience. King George V of England was there to watch his horse Anmer,and jockey Herbert Jones run in this famous race, the best attended in the racing calendar. As the horses came past the final bend at Tattenham Corner and into the finishing straight, Emily ducked under the white fence and flung herself at the King's horse which was third from last.  She was hit by the horse's shoulder and flung to the ground, followed by the jockey. Both were bleeding profusely. Anmer fell, got up and continued the race with the mounted horses. She was a suffragete, campaigning with others for Votes for Women. She was taken to Epsom hospital and never recoverd, dying 4 days later. The jockey was also taken to hospital but in fact rode again a few days later.

  There was fantastic publicity and the suffragetes continued their protests.  A year later the country was at war and women flooded the factories to replace men sent to war. By 1920 women had the vote if they were 30 years old and either they or their husbands owned their home, and not until 10 years later that all women over 21 were allowed to vote.

   Today horse racing is very popular with 50 or so racecourses from Aintree to York. There is racing most days around Britain, either thoroughbred Flat racing, or National Hunt races over fences and ditches. All is under the jurisdiction of the Jockey Club. Some racecourses specialize in one type or the other, and some have both types.  Most have the horses running  anti clockwise, but Beverley in Yorkshire has a clockwise course. I recently went to Wetherby Racecourse to watch a few jump races. The season is normally October to April and is certainly less glamorous that flat racing where ladies enjoy the warmth of the summer to show off their fashions.  The hurdle races started as Point to Point or 'Steeplechase' when riders raced from the steeple of one village church to another. In 1752 a Mr. O'Callaghan and a Mr. Edmund Burke raced their mounts between Buttevant Church and St. Leger church in Ireland, a distance of 4.5 miles. Jump racing is more popular than flat racing in Ireland to this day. I once went to the jump races in Killarney, County Kerry, next to the Killarney National Park, possibly the most stunning racecourse setting in the British Isles, with great Irish dancing, fiddling and singing in the local pubs.

   The Grand National at Aintree racecourse outside Liverpool is the race most wagered on in the British Isles. In the 1956 race Devon Locke, owned by the Queen Mother and ridden by Dick Francis (now a very successful mystery writer) was way out in the lead with only 50 yards from the finish, when it suddenly stopped and the rest of the field went past. I once witnessed a Point to Point race in Derbyshire between amateurs. Most National Hunt races are between 2 -4 miles, or measured in Furlongs- 220 yards. Jockeys are not paid that much, about $230.00 a race, plus a share of prize money, and maybe more as a 'retainer' by a certain trainer.  Jockeys often drive together from meeting to meeting, from Ayr in Scotland to Exeter in the South West. These waif like little men in silks spend lots of time in the sauna and often fall off.  They can weigh between 100-140 lbs. I spoke with some of the ambulance drivers at the course. Two ambulances follow around on the inside of the track, and they said that on average, a National Hunt jockey will fall off his horse every 10 rides.  On my visit the going was 'Very Soft'. It could be Hard thru Heavy, about 7 different 'official' terms for the state of the grass courses.  A rider fell off while jumping a fence, which are about 3 1/2 feet high, in half the races that I watched.

  One horse race is a 'one of a kind', the only Strand Race, or beach race course left in Europe. It's at Laytown, north of Dublin in Ireland, and has been held every year since 1867. the course and rails are  not permanent and are laid out between high tides. Since there are thousands of spectators and 'punters' they must think of safety first and get the race over before the tide comes back in.

  Betting on track, off track or on the web is big business. At this small meeting there were about 50 'bookies' as well as The Tote. The Tote was formed by Act of Parliament in 1928. Since 1961 when off course betting was made legal, lots of private betting shops opened. However The Tote is still a 'big player'. It cost about $4.00 for a days racing of 7 races if you are a 'senior citizen', up to over $150.00 in the glass 3 storey Millenium Stand, complete with a meal and comfortable seats. The bookies are independent one or 2 man businesses. They employed tick -tack men to relay the changing  betting odds as more or less money was placed on a certain horse. They have special hand signs, but nowadays each bookie has a lap top and cell phones.  There is also a 'racing slang'. For example 100-30 would be 'Burlington Bertie' or 'Scruffy and Dirty.' You can bet on a horse to win, or to place 1, 2, 3 or even a Trifecta, choosing a horse for each race in the meeting, which only has to place in each race, and not necessarily win. This can keep a punter interested all afternoon. All jockeys are 'weighed out' with their saddles on the scales, and may include lead weights under their saddles as a handicap.  After the race they 'weigh in' and mustn't be more than 1lb less than at weigh out.  I don't bet, but I chose the horses I liked by the 'silks' or jockeys shirt, or the name of the horse. The Reverend won the 12.55, Mr Prickle the 2.00 pm, and Sprinvic the 2.35, all evidently Irish horses. Horses win by various 'distances' such as a short head, half a length, 3 lengths etc., all to 30 lengths after which its referred to as  'A distance'.  Most 'jumpers' are geldings, or castrated horses. Don't ask why ! Of course they cannot then finish their lives on a stud farm. Maybe they go on a short holiday to Belgium where horse meat is very popular.!!

There has been a general stud book since 1791 so you can check up on the history of each horse. All horses are given a birthday of January 1st and a one year old was born anytime in the previous year.

  I'ts the flat racing that attracts the biggest 'purses', and the most glamour and crowds. Very rich owners, including Queen Elizabeth II, and very high stud fees. This year I went to Chester Races, right in town on the Roodee, just outside the city walls. The Roodee was the former Roman port on the River Dee, but has been silted up for centuries. You can dress up and eat magnificent meals with fine wines and champagne, but you can stand, high above, looking over the Roman city wall free of charge, as I did. and can hear the course announcer.  A hundred  yards or so away you can choose from dozens of old pubs in this charming city for refreshment.  Another racecourse I visited was at York, again a former Roman City. This racecourse is a mile from the city centre with magificent modern stands with luxurious suites and restaurants where a jacket and tie are required. There is lots of less expensive food, plus rides and attractions for children.  York has been named Racecourse of the Year' a number of times. Try to arrive at York Station by train with the longest and most elegant platform in Britain, and then walk past the city walls to the course.