Never been to the races? Me neither…


My first visit to a racecourse – on a windblown and wet November day in Wincanton – wasn’t at all what I expected, says Laura Hitchcock

Never mind the weather – everyone wears a hat and ignores the rain.
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

A trip to the races always looked like it might be fun. But … to be honest, it isn’t really for the likes of me, is it?
My dad was a milkman and we lived in a big Essex town – horses were as much a part of my home life as art, ballet and opera. Not.
And yet I grew up horse-mad, absorbing everything I could from books – Ruby Ferguson’s Jill series? The Pullein-Thompson sisters’ entire back catalogue? Misty of Chincoteague (though I still have no clue where that actually is) – I had them all).
I paid attention, I studied riding theory just in case. I finally got on a horse for real in my 20s – turns out that you can learn a surprising amount from books, but a real horse definitely helps.
Children’s books about gymkhanas and showjumping abounded, of course, but horseracing? Not at all. If you’re not introduced to it or grow up with it, then it’s frankly a closed, mysterious and mildly intimidating world, even to a grown up.
So when we were invited to Wincanton Racecourse for Badger Beers Chase Day, of course I was keen but swiftly went looking for help – we’re incredibly lucky to have a pair of the UK’s top Thoroughbred breeders, Lucy and Doug Procter, writing for us.

Frodon to victory in the 61st Badger Beer Handicap Chase

The biggest question
The first worry, obviously, was what do you wear to go racing?
Well, apparently, on your average weekday race meet, it’s pretty much anything goes ‘You’ll see a lot of tweed,’ said Doug ‘but mostly because it’s what most farmers wear most days! Go with anything practical for the weather – a racecourse is an exposed place in November’.
But we were attending on one of the biggest racedays in Wincanton’s racing calendar, which is slightly more dressy. Lucy offered some helpful hints on the ladieswear front: ‘Go for long boots with dark trousers or a skirt and woolly tights. I always opt for a thick polo neck sweater (or three!), and then add a scarf. There’s nothing more miserable than being inappropriately dressed for the weather, so a weatherproof coat is a must: most people will be in a tweed or plain coloured long wool coat, or a Barbour-type/beige waterproof overcoat. And if you’ve got a cap or some kind of hat it’s much easier than juggling an umbrella when it’s raining.’

Frodon in the winner’s enclosure

First impressions
Feeling confident from our pro what-to-wear tips, we headed to the main gates on race day. It was busy and as we watched the queue we were fascinated by who was there. Because it actually seemed to be everyone. Tweed-clad country types hunkered against the rain in their battered wax jackets and flat caps. Sharply-suited men, clearly there for a ‘lads day out’ queued noisily behind retired couples happily chatting. We saw wellies and trainers lined up alongside Dolce et Gabbana and Dubarry boots. Doug was right – there really isn’t a type of person who goes racing. It was rapidly obvious that everyone goes. We’d clearly been missing something.

The packed stand at Wincanton on Badger Beer Chase Day

Working out the system
Once inside the gate, we bought a racecard (£3.50, and DO get one, even if you’re not planning on betting; the whole day makes sense once you have one), and soon worked out the system for what to see. Obviously the day revolves around the races, but we quickly understood that it actually starts in the parade ring (sometimes called the paddock). Head there first and see the horses circling as they wait for the jockeys. I was surprised at just how close we were able to stand, and swiftly became aware that racehorses are… stunning. Powerful, elegant and very very different from the horses grazing in a field on your Sunday walk.
Now’s the point you want to look at your racecard and decide who you’re rooting for. The card’s a bit overwhelming at first – if you’re a statistician you’ll feel right at home – but there’s a key to what all the numbers mean, from the weights the horses are carrying to the names of the owner, trainer and jockey, how far they’ve travelled and a rough guide to current form. But if you’re a racing ‘pro’ like me, you’ll obviously eye up the horses as they walk past and … pick the prettiest one.
Once the jockeys arrive and mount up, the tide of the crowd flows back towards the track. Usually the viewing areas are separated according to your ticket entry (the closer to the finishing post, the more expensive the entry price), but Badger Beers Chase Day was a Single Enclosure Day, meaning anyone could stand anywhere. The stand was packed as most people chose to shelter from the weather, but, working on Doug’s advice, we headed for a gap at the side of the track, ignoring the shivering-sideways rain.
I’ve obviously watched the odd horserace on the television – who hasn’t had a bet on the Grand National? – but the experience of standing right there on the track was very new and entirely unexpected.

Contactless is taken by some of the course bookies

Suddenly feeling it
The crowd, the weather – suddenly horseracing was tangible, something very physical. And then the horses pounded past on the first circuit – mere feet away from where we stood. The noise from the stand began to build, the weather was forgotten, and we found ourselves cheering with the crowd as the pace picked up for the second circuit, eyes glued to the big screen until they rounded for the final straight and came into view.
We could actually feel the horses approaching. It’s a cliché to talk about the thunder of hooves, but what other word is there?
The noise was visceral, sandwiched as we were between the horses galloping past and the wall of sound from the crowd hollering them home.
As they passed the finishing post I was beaming – and keen to head straight back to the parade ring and do it all again.
This time I tried an actual bet – again, don’t be afraid. The bookies make it easy, and the solid advice was ‘if you’re not sure, just go for the favourite. They’re tipped to win because they’re judged to be the best horse on the course, so it’s never a bad idea’.
Nearly all the course bookies had banners declaring their minimum bet as £1 or £2, so don’t be ashamed to put on even a tiny amount, it really doesn’t matter (and some are contactless if you, like us, forgot to bring some cash. Just look for the sign on their board). We actually spent more on coffee than we did on betting, but it was a lot of fun choosing a horse, cheering them on and then going to collect our winnings (which we promptly bet on the next race, of course).

Watching on the screen doesn’t compare to standing within feet of the horses as they hurtle past

We were part of the crowd jumping and cheering local horse Frodon to victory in the 61st Badger Beer Handicap Chase. We picked a couple of winners, we grabbed a (really good) burger from a stand, a warming coffee from another, avoided the busy bars and forgot to worry about the weather. We bumped into some old friends and saw many others doing the same.
It turns out that horseracing isn’t about having a slightly seedy day of gambling, nor is it just for the poshest of hat-wearers politely chatting over a whisky.
It’s just a really fun, relaxed, sociable day – and the attitude to us as blatantly-obvious absolute race virgins, was friendly and welcoming. There’s always someone who knows the answer to a question – just ask the nearest person who looks like they might know what they’re doing.
On top of which you get to be up close to some of the most beautiful animals on earth.
So – the big question. Would we go for another day at the races? The answer to that is that we’re already marking the calendar, and booking up friends to come with us next time …


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