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Enjoyable but there's scope for plenty of improvement.

RACECOURSE food has always struck me as overpriced and undernourishing, cheap food priced up and eaten on the run by people who can't really be that hungry. I've never seen the need to spend time sitting down with a knife and fork at a racecourse. But I'm willing to discard that impression and rethink my attitude.

I've been directed towards the middle ground - no starched tablecloths, no Silver Ring kebab vans - and I go in with an open mind, no previous good or bad experiences to colour my opinion.

Sandown There's a big crowd here for Variety Club day and most of them are hungry it seems. The bars and food-serving areas of the great barn that is Sandown's grandstand are doing brisk business already, even before the runners for the first are in the parade ring.

You can sit down or you can walk. Some clutch sandwiches from the carvery by the Diamond Edge bar, jammed with salt beef or Gloucestershire pork, trimmings dripping from the crusts. These cost pounds 6 each, which to my mind is an excessive amount to spend on a sandwich. Perhaps these people have backed Seta in the first.

Outside are more walkers; people walking and chewing at the same time. Two vans sit outside the grandstand, facing the parade ring, purveying those two great staples of event catering, burgers and fish and chips.

Divine Burger and Divine Fish & Chips promise a heavenly taste. There are even photos of their offerings, in case any racegoers have just teleported in from Alpha Centauri and don't know what a tray of chips looks like. Again, these are not high street prices, but their market is captive and can be shaken down a little.

Sausage and chips is pounds 6.50, scampi the same, an extra 50p will get you a big piece of cod, or go next door and buy a divine cheeseburger for pounds 6.20. It's very popular, if slightly inelegant. If people gnawing on burgers is not your thing, head back inside.

Sandown has its own food hall, a little piece of motorway service station transported to the racetrack. Here you can sit down away from the walkers, take the weight off, flick through the form for the third race (Forte Dei Marmi; don't say I didn't tell you). And there's plenty of choice.

The Grill offers grilled chicken marinated in honey and thyme (pounds 7), from World Fusion there is mushroom stroganoff (pounds 6.90, Hungary) and beef jalfrezi (pounds 6.90, India, although I'm not sure about the recipe because in India cows are, well, sacred cows).

There's also fish and chips and the essential mushy peas (pounds 7.70), and Best of British steak and ale pie (pounds 7.70). With the pie come potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and a warm smile from the girl at the counter.

The smile is as warm as the food, which could be hotter. Perhaps the hot plate is not so hot. It's good, though, plenty of steak under a crunchy piecrust, vegetables neither overcooked nor undercooked but toothsome. It's good value for money, and plenty are taking advantage of it. Ian Pope, Sandown's catering general manager, is proud of what the course offers, pleased the new Costa Coffee concession is up and running despite an absence of signage. The sandwiches in there are better value than those at the salt beef carvery.

Everything is better value than the sweetie stall, where if you have more money than sense you can spend pounds 2 on a bottle of water. Daylight robbery.

Have a beer instead.

Next to the sweetie stall are three pumps from the Hog's Back brewery, proper ale, and the grateful queue is a long one. A pint of TEA (pounds 3.30) in a substantial plastic glass is rather a treat.

Sandown is doing the grandstand dining experience pretty well. Critics mark these things, don't they? 7.5/10 Windsor At Windsor the indoor food hall is outside, which is good because you can see the beautiful tree-lined parade ring while you perambulate, tray of food in one hand, plastic fork in the other.

It's the last Monday night of the season, another piece of racing's rich tapestry put away for the year, and there's a decent crowd to see it off into hibernation. And they're having their dinner.

The geezers around the MC Seafood van suck jellied eels from a tray (pounds 6.50) and wade into the cockles and mussels (pounds 3.50, no longer alive), while across the way people are queuing at the W*Indies caribbean kitchen - chicken curry with rice and peas (pounds 6.50), chicken wraps (pounds 4.50).

There are no photos to help you at the burger van, but those who were at Sandown on Saturday know what they're looking at and spend pounds 5 on burgers, pounds 6 on a bacon sizzler. The Flaming BBQ Company provide similar fare, cajun chicken or the ever-so-slightly unappealing budweiser chicken (pounds 5).

It's a little like spinning a globe. Mexican food? Nachos & Fajitas, cheese nachos (pounds 4) or chicken fajitas (pounds 5). A taste of the Orient? The stir-fry bar at the end of the line is the place for you - and me.

Szechuan gourmet noodles (pounds 6.95) and chicken stir-fry (pounds 6.95) are flying off the wok and into trays. The gourmet noodles come piled with chunks of pork in a sticky sauce, plenty of it too. Sit down on the green garden furniture and slurp away.

Just spicy enough, properly hot, the pork and noodles are decent value, a reasonable bang for your buck. The pork is good quality, not stringy or gristly, and as I tunnel under the noodles I discover, to my delight, a lone spring onion, crunchy and piquant.

This is all tray food, plastic knives and forks or just hand to mouth, and if you want to sit down with china and stainless steel you'll be disappointed. But you won't be disappointed by the variety.

Across the way, the groom of seller winner Rather Cool enjoys a pint of lager in the sun, no doubt delighted to be taking her home again even if loyal connections weren't overenamoured to have to go to pounds 11,400 to buy her back.

Five cider stalls offer an alternative to the tasteless fizzy lager options, but I succumb to the latter after searching in vain for ale. Carlsberg (pounds 3.50) in the Jamstick bar will have to do; the choice of alcohol could certainly be made wider, if not necessarily as wide as the choice of food. It's all good but not all great. 6.5/10 Lingfield on a Thursday afternoon doesn't have the same pulling power as Sandown Saturday or Windsor Monday, and there isn't the variety of food outlets. Plenty of places are shut, meaning those open are busy.

If you're posh, you can have Posh Fish and Chips (pounds 7.50) at the course chippy, although it's pushing it a little to call beer-battered monkfish, chips and a bottle of fizzy drink posh. Again, there are photographs of the food. Strange. There aren't many people feeling posh, evidently because the tables are full in the Brasserie.

There are only three dishes to choose from - a good thing, because too much choice indicates frozen food microwaved up - and they're all going like hot cakes. They've run out of rice for the mushroom stroganoff (pounds 9), but the pork loin has all its accoutrements still running and there's a queue.

There's also a ploughman's lunch, cheese or cold meat (pounds 7.50) and I'm lured in by the salad, because heaven knows I haven't been getting my five a day for the last 22 years.

The salad is piled high (because it's dirt cheap) and there's plenty of ham, turkey and roast beef to go with it, as well as a big sourdough baguette. Also a big pickled onion, which is great for me, but not for the people I'll be vox-popping shortly. Ohhh.

Celery! I remember celery. It's a big voyage of rediscovery and, frankly, it's preferable to the offerings at Sandown and Windsor. Proper cutlery, somewhere to sit down and a big screen to stare at are a mighty combination, a winning combination. Sophie comes to collect my tray and asks if everything was all right. Yes, I beam, and she quails under the pickled onion blast.

In the bar under the grandstand, watching Lang Shining come up the rail to win under a patient, assured ride from Sophie Doyle, I wash it all down with a pint of Tetley's (pounds 3.40), which is close as we get to proper beer but a quid more expensive than in Yorkshire. We may be soft, us southerners, but we pay for it.

There's also a Cornish pasty concession - the Crantock Bakery. The village of Crantock itself is a relative hellhole, but the pasties (pounds 3.50) look okay, although I'm full now and can't manage one. There's also plenty of those spurious pasty fillings such as beef and stilton and chicken that should all be thrown in the Tamar. Again, there's a queue.

There is less to go at here, but less is more. No reeking vans, no racegoers stumbling around with trays of chips. A smaller crowd is obviously a major factor in this, but the overall impression is better. We have a winner. 8/10 Verdict Everything at all three courses looked edible, but some things looked more edible than others. Personally, I'll be happy to go back to not eating at racecourses again, taking the sensible and cheaper option of eating either before I go or when I get home, because when I go to the track I like to watch the horses, not sit down and play trencherman.

By and large, the food is overpriced. I realise the audience is a captive one, and that racecourses make a considerable amount from their various concessions, but it's just another way of picking the racegoers' pockets after pounds 20 to get in and pounds 3 for a racecard.

There should always be somewhere for people to sit down with their food. It's only civilised. Semi-drunks lurching around cramming burgers into their faces are not picturesque, and racecourses could go further in eliminating this.

I think these three tracks are probably fairly representative of the whole, certainly in the south. Perhaps each racecourse should be responsible for selling local food from local suppliers, emphasising the individuality of the racecourse and the surrounding area, rather than supplying the usual generic options.

That might cost a little less, be slightly more memorable. Food at racecourses is not particularly important, but if it is done well it can add to an already enjoyable day.

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Winsdor's outdoor food hall, where racegoers can tuck into food from around the world - sort of
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Sep 2, 2010
Words:1823
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