Sunday Supplement: Chelmsford and the Commonwealth

The new permanent grandstand at Chelmsford City racecourse

The new permanent grandstand

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

I have a new alarm clock, my principal acquisition from the January sales. The old one wasn’t reliable, it started going off up to half an hour either side of the required time. In one direction it was good – it only woke easy-to-wake me. The new one is so loud, I’m sure it would have startled half the world population, maybe even over to Perth, Western Australia.

It was important for me to make a quick start on this winter day of days for British sportsmen. First off it was our brave England cricketers, led by proud Londoner Eoin Morgan – well he plays at Lords even if an Irishman - in the Final of the Tri-Series against the Aussies.

I can report that we’ve already got rid of Finch, but that means Warner and Smith are in.

Next it’ll be another proud Brit, Rory McIlroy, defending a long lead in the last round of the Dubai Desert Classic. You can tell the son of Northern Ireland is happy to be British, as he wants to represent Ireland in the next Olympics when golf gets on the agenda. After him, Andy Murray, whose known allegiance to the red, white and blue is as deep as the colour of Chelsea shirts. He faces Djokovic in the Australian tennis final.

Then we’ll be waiting for the 1.30 p.m. start at the Emirates for Arsenal and Aston Villa; some racing from Chelmsford City, but not, repeat not, watching the Super Bowl tonight save a sideways glance at the halfway show and Katy Perry. It’s 23 for 1 after just four overs. Better take a break from the words to try to get rid of Smith.

Kettle on, first cuppa of the night and reflection while the water boils that Chelsea’s attack is pretty toothless when shorn of the buccaneering Costa and his goal-making sidekick Fabregas. When you watch the leaders you wonder if the serenity that seems to be there for much of the time, can dispel as easily as the manager’s temper.

They ended a traumatic week dropping two home points for the first time this season against champions Manchester City and if it had been any other team, the ordinariness of the performance might have been mentioned rather more than the excuse of the two absentees. But this, coming straight after the hard-fought semi-final win over Liverpool and the FA Cup exit at home to Bradford, made it a week of rare agony for their fans.

I’ve watched the last dozen overs but as the players take their first drinks break after 16 overs in Perth, Australia are a faltering (a la Chelsea?) 55-3, with only Smith, naturally, looking secure. I will now desist from this commentary, unless of course I wanted to spin out the compilation of the words for eight hours.

Chelmsford City looks at first sight that it had never gone away in the six years since Great Leighs came and went. I was there on Wednesday on the last of the three days when the general public would have been refused access, but with nobody much on the gate and just a lady with a list inside the owners and trainers area, the rules were a little relaxed.

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The differences were pretty marked on second glance. Where the original inside the circuit stand was formed of the remnants of the Irish Ryder Cup K-Club buildings bolted together Meccano- (who remembers that? I was rubbish at it!) or Lego-style, it has been replaced by a stylish construction on roughly, or maybe precisely, the same location. It has a very smart upper level, designated the Club area, and when I got there, John Holmes was prominently on show.

He may have left the lead role that transcended the time when the Essex Showground morphed agonisingly slowly into Great Leighs, but the advent of Fred Done, owner of Betfred and the Tote, into the recipe of the revived only racecourse in the county of Essex, has coincided with Holmesie’s reappearance.

Chelmsford have big plans, not least for a grass circuit to complement the always-admired Polytrack, as well as a proper stand on the outside and with location barely 45 minutes from Newmarket and in the middle of a great catchment area of sport-starved pretty well-off people, it should go with a bang this time round.

It will help when the tunnel under the course is completed. On Wednesday, evidence of the hold-up caused by the recent very wet weather was obvious. The net result is that the gate is shut firmly while horses remain on the track, so any attempt at a sharp getaway needs to be minutely planned. We didn’t and had to wait 15 minutes for the conclusion of the finale.

The following day, the boss had a debutant in the bumper at Wincanton. Brother Khee set out in Ray Tooth’s colours for the first time on a day when the ground there was as bad as I’ve ever seen on a British racecourse. No wonder there were five non-runners in his race, but the little Brother did well for a long time, and though fading into sixth close home, Tom O’Brien liked him.

Hughie Morrison sensibly had thought better of a trip west on the eve of a winter break in the sunshine of South Africa, so he despatched mum, the Dowager Lady Margadale – “I live down the road”, she explained, recalling the fact that her late husband had been Chairman of Wincanton for many years.

This formidable lady herself has had many years’ officiating at notably Salisbury, and she told us that in weather like the blizzard conditions of Thursday’s her 4 x 4 was not just a Godsend but a source of great solace for many people in the sometimes snowed-in village where she lives.

Going racing, as I have almost every week for the last 45 years, has brought me into contact with so many people I would never otherwise have met. Paupers and toffs, con-men and great philanthropists, you are likely to encounter some of each category around the racetracks of the world.

Saturday morning, I couldn’t resist another trip up to the Newmarket gallops and Simon Crisford’s stable. The way trainers start to pair up embryo racehorses as they take their early steps is always fascinating. This one will need time, some might have to go back home for a few weeks to mature a bit, while others can progress to working upsides. At the moment Ray’s new pride and joy is in the latter category. Hope he stays there until the start of the Flat. Can’t wait for that.

Blimey, it’s 50-4 in the 18th over and Smith’s out, stumped off the wonderful Moeen Ali. Better get back to watching it. See you next week by which time I hope we’ve collected three trophies, cricket, golf and tennis. Makes you proud to be, ahem, English!

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