A day at the Catterick races

With the festive season over and the dreaded month of January in full swing, what could be better than… a day at the races? January. Let’s face it, is a crap month. Everyone is cold, skint and remembering the good times of only a few weeks ago. Nothing happens in January.

Then it is high time to get the scarf out, search for some half respectable clobber and start to enjoy life again. And what better way in this corner of North Yorkshire than a trip to Catterick racecourse.

Horse racing really started at Catterick Bridge in 1783, although historical records suggest it may have been earlier.

Your correspondent has to be candid. I went to Catterick races maybe a dozen years ago and returned home less than enamoured. The place badly needed a fresh coat of paint. Also, the course had made the ludicrous decision of not allowing alcohol outside the bars, which meant you couldn’t watch the racing with a beer in hand. Thankfully that ruling, made on the usual grounds of ‘health and safety’ – what isn’t these days? – is no longer in place. 

I’m not going to pretend Catterick is the new Cheltenham, or closer-to-home York, but it is now something of a jewel in the North Yorkshire crown, if you like your horse racing to be based around the principles of good, welcoming fun. The staff didn’t know I was an undercover sneak, but to a man and woman they all looked as though they were happy to be in post and were unfailingly courteous. You may be the same as me. I don’t mind average food at a restaurant, as long as service comes with a smile.  

 Anyway, my knowledge of horse racing is based on having visited 45 of our 59 racecourses in England, Scotland and Wales, plus even one in the Channel Island of Jersey. So it’s fair to say I can compare and contrast. And Catterick is now something to be proud of.

I’ll get on to the racing shortly – and you will all be delighted to know it was a rare successful foray in my horse racing litany of disaster – but first I’ll try to persuade you to give Catterick a go as the owners have spent big on sprucing the place up. 

The new Longshots bar.

 Catterick has forked out £4m in the last five years on a new main entrance, saddling boxes, horse box park, parade ring, weighing room, sports bar and big screen. There is also a new Dales stand, specifically for use by owners and trainers. Basically they have shelled out on pretty much everything you see and there are plans for even further refurbishments. The view on the balcony at the Dales stand is second to none and guess what? They even let us grown-ups take our drinks outside.  

You cannot sugar coat it though because Catterick racecourse still has the old Bridge pub falling down around its ears right opposite the main entrance. It has just been brought so whatever plans are in place they have got to be better than allowing a building to gather dust for year after year.  

 So, now for the part you’ve all been waiting for. How did he get on with the business at hand? My betting record is usually that of a modern day Frank Spencer – clueless. As a sports reporter for national titles I covered a every pastime going and often went to Cheltenham Festival where my love of the atmosphere was in stark contrast to my actual knowledge of what the hell was happening on the turf. In fact, I would confidently say I’m the only reporter to have ever asked Gold Cup winning jockey Sam Waley-Cohen ‘So, what exactly is a fetlock?’ Politeness comes very naturally to Mr Waley-Cohen and instead of storming off mid-interview he merely raised one eyebrow and asked if I would like a cup of tea.  

Anyway, back to the serious stuff. Betting. Now some of you won’t like the concept of a flutter and to be honest I can’t blame you. When you read that the lady who owns Bet 365 makes more in a week than some Premier League footballers in a year, it’s enough to make you weep. I don’t encourage betting, far from it. But in moderation, I can live with it. Mind you, I tried to place a bet at Cheltenham once and was mortified when I offered my paltry £1.50 each way offering, only to be told by a smirking cockney bookie “£5 is minimum here son. You’re betting wiv the big boys nah”.

First race. Solid. Mr Bells romped home at 7-2 but my each way bet Didero Vallis meant I got my stake back. Then came the most stunning news since Neil Armstrong announced his giant leap for mankind. Not only that, it was also mired in sinister bookie-type goings on, which not for one second did I remotely understand.  

 I had my eye on One More Stroke, as it had good form and the jockey Brian Hughes exudes class, even though his name sounds like an accountant, or even worse tax inspector. One More Stroke was 12-1 with one on-course bookie, but the chappie next to him had it at 22-1. What!!! Then the price shot down faster than Usain Bolt in a rush for his mum’s cooking… 18-1, 16-1, 14-1.  I clambered on board at 14-1 and thought, what the hell is happening? Suffice to say One More Stroke looked good all the way round and easily came home to a foaming-at-the-mouth correspondent. If Madonna had tapped me on the shoulder and asked for hot date I wouldn’t have been more surprised.

Fourth race and my bet Hajey was in charge. Until the last stride when Heracles Westwood came through on the rail to win by a gnat’s whisker. Crestfallen? No, I still had my One More Stroke boots on.  

Usual form was restored in the fifth race as my choice Empty Nest somehow finished in a different time zone to the winner Noche Negra.  

But this was a day when the horsey Gods were smiling on me and LetTheDustSettle, which had no reputation to speak of but mysteriously started off as favourite cantered past the winning post. The fact that it was chosen on the safe ground that both the jockey and trainer are called Tom (Bellamy and Lacey) just proves the old adage that…always bet on your favourite name.  

Ah happy days. With a bulging wallet we encamped to the nearest pub with memories of a cracking day out. Thank you Catterick racecourse. Maybe January isn’t so bad after all.