Courses for Horses: A Journey Round the Racecourses of Great Britain and Ireland by Nicholas Clee - review by Robin Oakley

Robin Oakley

Tour of the Turf

Courses for Horses: A Journey Round the Racecourses of Great Britain and Ireland


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 272pp £22 order from our bookshop

Within two pages of starting Nicholas Clee’s racecourse odyssey you know him to be a true member of the racing tribe, a man who, with a betting ticket on the favourite in his pocket, will still cheer home a winning outsider because it is a once-famous horse recovered from injury or is ridden by a bashed-up jockey down on his luck. You know that he will thrill to his inner core at the sight of a Constitution Hill or a Shergar powering away from the field. There is a giveaway too in his confessed addiction (which many of us share) to making a £6.40 investment at 10p a line in the Tote Placepot, seeking to find a placed horse in six races.

Clee wrote a glorious book about the famous horse Eclipse and the scoundrels in his life. Courses for Horses is different, essentially a diary of visits to a number of British and Irish racecourses. Clee gives his verdict on their welcomes, their loos, the quality of their burgers and the best vantage points for watching the racing. All this is handy but highly subjective. Far more valuable than his Tripadvisor-style rundowns are his delightful digressions into the histories of the tracks and into every aspect of racing, from whip regulation to speed ratings. In chapters on York and Goodwood, he reflects on the turf reformers Lord George Bentinck and Admiral Rous. Bentinck made rules for others but broke them shamelessly himself. Rous was a man of unsullied integrity but a snob: ‘He was courteous and considerate to jockeys but nothing would have induced him to invite one to his dinner table.’ The racecourse visits are spiced with anecdotes and gentle wit. Of Ripon, Clee notes, ‘In the centre of the circuit is a lake, rented out to jet-skiers and anglers, though not, one guesses, at the same time.’

Clee is a good listener and at Exeter joins race caller Richard Hoiles. Some commentators learn jockeys’ colours the night before or even from propping up race cards next to the steering wheel as they drive to the course. Hoiles says, ‘You put a lot of pressure on yourself if you do that.’ He learns them as he introduces the horses to the crowd, taking the view that it is better to learn something quickly and then forget it immediately. At Sandown (once home to a priory where all the inmates died in the Black Death), Clee is educated by parade ring expert Ken Pitterson about what physical qualities to look for in a horse. Choose the best looker in the paddock and use it for comparison, says the sage. I wish he’d asked him about greys – I find it much harder to judge their state of race readiness than that of other horses. The sections on Chester and Doncaster are punctuated with the candid thoughts of Sir Anthony Oppenheimer, owner of Derby winner Golden Horn, on how he chooses mates for his mares.

Clee lends a sympathetic ear to most, such as the executive at the all-weather track of Chelmsford City who explains that the course has to set up temporary traffic lights on a road separating the track from the racecourse stables: ‘You don’t want a boy racer wiping out a million-pound Godolphin thoroughbred.’ Even so, he does not shy away from the uncomfortable. He calls the limited knowledge about what happens to the twenty thousand racehorses in training in Ireland and Great Britain after they reach the end of their careers ‘racing’s dirty secret’. There are interesting statistics too. Some of us relish the St Leger, the longest of the five Classic races, which continues to fight fashion, most breeders nowadays preferring to rear speedy horses than those with stamina. Clee notes that no St Leger winner has sired a Group One race winner for twenty-five years.

Nobody will agree with all Clee’s verdicts, but that isn’t the point. I once wrote a book about the hundred best racehorses. My publisher insisted I rank them in order; it was the arguments about relative placings which provided the talking points. Clee gives the highest accolades to York and to Chester, both excellent tracks. He dismisses the Ascot Gold Cup, ‘in some years’ an ‘unexciting spectacle of a race between horses whose principal qualification is that they were too slow to compete at more fashionable distances’, and he is no fan of lovely Goodwood, largely because of insufficient racial diversity in the audience and an unfortunate personal encounter with a braying upper-class twat. But there are more non-white faces among racecourse staff than paying customers everywhere, not just at Goodwood.

Sandown is my personal favourite, and I am sad that Clee’s travels didn’t take in Warwick, an excellent test of a jumper, or Wincanton. I am also amazed that when discussing famous runnings of the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown he did not include the epic duel in 2000 between Kalanisi and Giant’s Causeway, one of the most compelling contests I ever saw.

Courses for Horses is fun, quirky and informative. Clee bothers to answer the questions that racing novices are often too nervous to ask. What, for instance, is the ‘going stick’ or an apprentice’s five-pound allowance? Clee will explain. But his insistence on using public transport throughout his journey seems perverse. His trip to Bangor-on-Dee involved taking the train from Euston to Wrexham General, with changes at Crewe and Chester, and then a twenty-minute taxi ride at a cost of £170. What’s wrong with jumping in a car with a pal and splitting the petrol costs? Racing is about fun, not mortification of the flesh.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter