`It never pretends to be in the big-time, and it`s honesty makes it hard to fault'.
FaintHEART in a fugged-up car looks out at the sheeting downpour and phones the racecourse in the hope of a cancellation. The track replies that nothing short of Noah's flood will stop them. It was ever thus. The years may change but at Huntingdon the hearts stay constant.
Sometimes even beyond the grave. The big race this week is the Macer Gifford Memorial Chase, in honour of Josh's Whitbread Gold Cup-winning brother who farmed next to the course but was tragically struck down by motor neurone while still in his thirties.
Macer was a cherished friend of mine and my first meeting on Tuesday is with a compact figure with Macer's build, Macer's face and above all with that deep Gifford country voice with its big laugh bubbling under. Closer inspection reveals head groundsman Mike Newman, Macer's cousin, but for a moment I think the lad has returned to us.
Huntingdon can do that to you. Walk round and the track is exactly the same as 40 years ago, except that the turf is infinitely better drained and tended.
There is the same big ditch in front of the stands, the same 180-degree turn at the end of the straight spinning you almost instantly on to the first fence down the back, where poor Jimmy Harris was crippled by the hind legs of a horse somersaulting beside him. Most of all you remember the long, long, final turn, which eventually funnels you flat out at the last two fences.
The angle of this bend used to lead to trouble. There are no fallers in the straight but I remember capsizing there more than once, and not always with well-understood consequences.
One day I got a good whacking and then moved on to some racing dinner in London. Feeling a bit second-hand, I stuck to the mineral water but still passed out in the gents. "Poor old Brough," they said as I came round, "pissed again."
No such troubles this week, although the years roll back as we stand up for the first race only for the commentator's microphone to fail, leaving Derek Thompson to gabble away to himself with the rest of us none the wiser.
We are also Thommo-less for half of the second race before the airwaves are suddenly reoccupied by the voice from which no cliche is ever knowingly undersold. "Can he do it?" yells Thommo as the favourite, Sharmy, lands in front over the last. "Yes he can."
As Sharmy stands in the unsaddling enclosure there is something familiar in the grey-haired figure putting the rug over the winner's quarters. It is Fred Messer, now a linchpin of Ian Williams' stable but who was at Frenchie Nicholson's with me in the 60s and had his moment of fame when steering the grey mare Cullen round the maze-like twists and turns of Epsom's Great Metropolitan Handicap back in 1966.
Nostalgia is now coming on the flood. Watching at the last fence in the next race is to see the mare Mothers Help jump spring-heeled up and over, despite the squelching demands of the soaking turf. She is ridden by Rupert Wakley. Crikey, I used to ride with his father.
Before the juvenile hurdle, Peter Scudamore instructs his son Tom in the paddock before setting him off on a handsome ex-Andre Fabre Sadler's Wells horse called Sloane Street. Tom looks as lean and eager as young jockeys will always look. But it was grandfather Michael I rode with.
The man with the
scythe maybe getting closer but, sadly, his swish does not inspire Sloane Street, who downs tools completely in the straight. "Andre Fabre must be a good trainer," mutters Peter wryly.
Fabre is in the big-time; Huntingdon never pretends to be, and its honesty makes it hard to fault. The weighing room may be too small - quite unchanged since my time - and the stands are fairly basic, but the bars are warm and you can get Newmarket sausages and mash downstairs and a slap-up silver service up top.
"We've tried to cut our cloth," says chairman Gurney Sheppard, with a farmer's practicality, "to invest in the track, to attract runners, to be good in the lower division, not struggling in the premier league."
Yet racing's premier league players still beat a path to Huntingdon's door and not just for the Peterborough Chase, home to an Edredon Bleu four-timer and now awaiting stablemate Best Mate.
The Macer Gifford Chase goes to the pair's stable companion Red Blazer, on whom Jim Culloty wins a terrific photo-finish duel with young Henry Oliver.
We stand around with pleasure tinged with sadness as Macer's widow, daughter and sister make the presentation. But while the modern motorway images of the A1/A14 interchange are on the horizon, close up this is the place for country, farming people. They mourn but, above all, they live each day to the fullest.
A voice hails from the crowd. It is Richard Tate. When little Cullen moved on to jumps, Richard took over from Fred Messer and won the County Hurdle at Cheltenham on her.
Richard, like his father Martin is a farmer first and a cunning trainer only second. But he has a horse called Fashion Victim in
the last. Tate runners usually need keeping an eye on.
Not this time they don't. "Fashion Victim doesn't look very keen to start," calls Thommo, "but I'm sure he'll do it now."
It proveS to be a prophecy nearly as good as the great man's legendary "it's only a passing shower" before the Biblical deluge that flooded out the second Dubai World Cup. The tapes flash up. Fashion Victim? He never takes a step.
Back in the unsaddling enclosure, one of the TV hosts wants help to get to the bar. As we wheel Sharron Murgatroyd across the tarmac, we pass a board on which is inscribed the Peterborough Chase roll of honour -1987 was the year of Richard Dunwoody on Very Promising. Later that day there was a ladies' hurdle. "I rode a horse called Fourth Tudor," says Sharron, "beat John Oaksey's daughter Sarah on the run-in."
The memory comes without a shred of self-pity for the terrible injuries at Bangor that changed her life so utterly four years later. We reach the bar. Someone gets a glass of red wine which Sharron hooks a hand round. "That girl," says a helper, "has a heart and a half."
So, too, does the place she was at on Tuesday.
The field flies the water at Huntingdon, where only a flood of Biblical proportions is likely to halt proceedings, especially in the light of the course's much-improved drainage
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Nov 14, 2002|
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