Humans are herd animals too. Jockeys, trainers, owners and those enjoying the few prized media attendance slots for racing behind closed doors have agreed that without the crowds it simply hasn’t been the same experience. TV coverage of racing is first class going on brilliant and has provided vital information and entertainment through lockdown, but we in the racing tribe need to be regularly on the course, rubbing shoulders with the like-minded: ‘Did you see what that one did last time at Newbury? Why isn’t X riding his regular stable’s two-year-old here?’
After my Goodwood member friend Derek Sinclair invited me to be his guest on the first Saturday on which racing welcomed back partial crowds, I counted down the days like a stocking-hungry child approaching Christmas. Racing at Goodwood on a fine day is the closest thing you get this side of the Pearly Gates to a peek at heaven and the reminders were there. Something quickened in the blood with the drumming of hooves on rain-softened grass, the equine victors tossing their heads and stamping their feet with pride as their steaming bodies were doused with water buckets, the parade-ring chitchat between riders and the stable staff helping them into the saddle.
Of course in these Covid-emergent days, with courses still restricted to crowds of 4,000 or 50 per cent of capacity, there were restrictions on the availability of bars and restaurants but Goodwood had devised a sensible one-way system allowing circulatory access to Tote, betting office, refreshments and lavatories. Smiling staff were widely available for guidance. It was a forgotten but very real pleasure after months of soulless online betting to pick up winnings in crisp sanitised notes (only, alas, from the first race and Irish 2,000 Guineas; with the other six losers, I was unusually happy to make my contribution to the racing economy).
As often at Goodwood, a future star emerged. Trained by Simon and Ed Crisford and ridden with almost startling confidence by Silvestre de Sousa, the two-year-old Flotus looked the real thing when going through the gears impressively on the soft ground to win the six-furlong maiden and become a 5-1 favourite for the Albany Stakes at Royal Ascot. Any Americans present would have taken the 7-4: Flotus stands, of course, for First Lady of the United States. There was a heart-warmer in the ten-furlong Listed race for Ed Walker as his eight-year-old stable hero Stormy Antarctic saw off fellow veteran Desert Encounter. The utterly genuine Stormy Antarctic has won races in France, Germany and Italy as well as competing in Hong Kong and Canada, but this was remarkably his first victory in Britain since taking the Craven Stakes in 2016. Unusually, though, there was no winner on the day for Goodwood specialist Mark Johnston whose Bravado finished last in the 7f handicap despite his odds tumbling temptingly during the day.
At Goodwood, where the dress-code guide encourages ‘ladies and gents’ to dress up and urges racegoers ‘to wear what makes them feel elegant’, there are normally two-legged sights to enjoy too. I do recall a brave miniskirt or two, a green satin body bandage and a couple of jack-the-lads in waistcoats with no jackets. There was, too, a lady who from a distance appeared to be wearing a dress beside which a tomato ketchup bottle had recently exploded. Goodwood did its best in every way and could do nothing about the cruel weather: one of those infuriating days when no sooner had you unbuttoned your mac than the heavens reopened with another blast and you had to dash for cover. On a members-only day, though, the numbers circulating around the Sussex course’s spacious facilities felt rather like the last few Tic Tacs rattling around in the box. Soon there was no rattle, just a soggy trudge from parade ring to grandstand and vice versa. For fashionistas and serious racegoers alike I can only say roll on the next stage of lockdown-unwinding.
When, in my political correspondent days, a redistribution of parliamentary constituencies resulted in a pompously objectionable Tory MP having to search for a new seat and surprisingly securing one, his previous agent, a dour Scot, inquired quietly what majority his former charge was inheriting. On being told it was 12,000, he intoned: ‘It will nae be enough.’ Sadly the same applies to the current lockdown relaxation on racecourses.
With racing on too at Haydock, York and Newmarket on Saturday, few trainers were at Goodwood. There was little jumping up and down in rain-soaked shoes and if there were shouts of encouragement I am even deafer than Mrs Oakley alleges. Standing just feet away from the returning winners — as often as not on Saturday with the pocket rocket Silvestre de Sousa jumping off them — we were frequently the only two people I could hear clapping. Well done, Goodwood, but to generate the proper buzz and exert its unique appeal racing badly needs the full relaxation of lockdown restrictions we are promised next month.
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