The news that Southwell was going to return after the autumn flooding recently was music to my ears, as I’d been missing those visits to my local course, writes David Massey. (I know there’s a track in Nottingham, and yes, I live in Nottingham, but I have always considered Southwell to be my local. Not least because there’s jump racing there, and is actually easier to get to.)
I’d popped down to the track a couple of times whilst the flooding was going on and had spoken to manager Mark Clayton on the first of them. Mark is positivity itself, he can find the good in pretty much any situation, but even he seemed quite down and it was obvious we weren’t going to be back to “normal” for some time. It would appear, from recent chat about the subject, that the general public aren’t going to be back until after Christmas, with anything at ground level unusable and the upstairs areas can only take so many people safely. So, for the time being, it’s owners, trainers and annual members only, with some temporary structures being used for the weighing room, jockeys’ changing rooms, etc.
Those changing rooms must have been very cold on the first night back. With 119 runners on a nine-race card and temperatures in the minuses, five bookmakers turned up expecting a crowd of around, well, let’s say estimates varied from 120-350. They were all hopeful there would be enough business for five books but they were wrong.
After five races two of the quintet decided enough was enough and packed up. For the remaining three there was just about enough business left, but it was becoming clear that, even with 100+ runners, two books would be plenty. We scraped by without too much mishap but as was pointed out, on nights like this you’re asking for trouble as a bookmaker. With all respect to the annual members, most only have small bets (one or two occasionally have a decent wager) so all you’ll take as an on-track bookmaker is live money from owners in low-grade handicaps for the majority of the time. You’re almost asking for a kicking.
If that was bad business, then unfortunately the jumps meeting that followed on Tuesday was worse. With just a third of Friday’s runners, we were always going to be well down on owners - although one positive you can take is that the jumps boys do like a bet. You’re more likely to field money for more than one runner, which is obviously a help, but there was no volume at all. From Pick 1 in the ring I took 47 bets, equating to eight bets a race. Business dwindled away as the afternoon progressed, with owners not hanging around after their horses had run. The rail pitch did better - the current one-way system in place means that the rail is the first bookmaker you come across - but all the same, it’s clear it is going to be a long, hard winter for whatever bookmakers turn up there, particularly with the Christmas fixtures, usually such a moneyspinner, now looking dead in the water.
The other positive, I suppose, is that the betting shop, situated on the first floor, is closed for the foreseeable and so betting the away meetings in the afternoon becomes a little more lucrative. Before you say “yes, but everyone has phones, they’ll just use those, won’t they?” you’d be surprised how many medium-to-large sized backers simply can’t get on with the online firms (or perhaps you wouldn’t be? We’ve all had those emails with “Your Account” as the subject matter, after all…) and have returned to the tracks to punt. Most have a share in something running, too, or know someone that does, and so can get themselves in without any hassle.
So Southwell is Schroedinger’s course at the moment - it’s back, but it’s not really back, not how you’d like it anyway.
However, one thing that’s made me a very happy man is that on the first meeting back I got to meet the legendary Michael Dickinson. Michael, apart from being one of the greatest trainers of a racehorse of all time, invented Tapeta, in case you weren’t aware (and is still made by Michael Dickinson Inc) and has come over to give his advice when Southwell have had issues with the surface in the past. He was there to get jockey feedback and make sure all was well with the surface, which it was. We had a chat about some of his wonderful horses, with Silver Buck top of my list. He still delights in telling people about all the 12 Boxing Day winners he had in 1982, and of course the first five home in the Gold Cup. There weren’t many at Southwell that night but he still had a captive audience, with everyone keen to say hello and get an autograph from the great man.
I’d have to say the bloke has barely aged in the last thirty years. He’s like Benjamin Button, physically younger the older he gets. Perhaps he rubs Tapeta on his face every night. Maybe that’s the secret.
I’ve still got two Tupperware containers full of Fibresand in the garage from when they dug it all up for the Tapeta. I wonder if that would work…