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If it ain’t Christmas, it must be Altcar

Capt. Kneesup

Capt. Kneesup

Capt. Kneesup was the former Racing Correspondent of various BBC regional radio stations and was the gossip columnist on the now-defunct Odds On magazine. He now runs Nick Boyd's large, privately owned reputation, which is widely regarded as a sporting, not-for-profit endeavour.
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If I see another headline telling me that X is the New Z, I shall scream. Today’s X was Christmas decorations and suggested that Y was a happier mental outlook. Another went further, by suggesting that the nation keeps them up until every person in the UK is vaccinated. The drip-feed that now passes for Government news hinted yesterday that we might need vaccinating every six months. One suspects the entire process will be like painting The Firth of Forth bridge; never actually completed. Take your bloody decorations down.

In the old days, of course, everyday, ordinary people like myself, would be ripping down the wretched things, with a nod towards Madame’s emotional state at the passing of another year. “I know, darling, but wasn’t it lovely etc.” Like children before Christmas, for many grown-ups, January 6th marked the beginning of the run to The Waterloo Cup. A few nights sleep, and it was time to prepare. Hotel Beds needed reserving, dinner tables needed booking, winter clothes needed checking, and for some – but never for me, the 64 dogs’ owners needed reassurance that all was well and that you all had the same sporting chance. The preparations for this three-day meeting, made a fortnight in Val d’Isere look like a Supermarket trip.

Again this year, I was reminded. Inevitably the Mates Attrition Rate has been pretty stiff, but as I took down Sir Mark Prescott’s card, he reassured me he was well, and another card suggested that the cigar fug at Heath House remains impenetrable. The “girls” who effectively ran matters social are apparently in good heart, and the brilliant dog trainer’s Facebook page reminds me of just how tough a life Yorkshire can be if you’re not bred to it. I won’t bore you with The Waterloo Cup history, which many of you will already know, but should you wish a reminder, Adrian Dangar’s 2018 piece in Country Life is as good as any. (CLICK HERE to open it in another tab).

I became involved when a great friend insisted I come and help him at the Waterloo Cup, where he was a Steward. Thus, in early February 1990, I went and spent a fun Monday night watching the Call Over with various bookmakers led by the inestimable Stephen Little. Full of Irish, and the racing and sporting fraternity, you’d catch a glimpse of Clement Freud, complaining loudly about being smoked like a kipper, or Big Pete Walwyn trying to get the attention of a the never-sufficient, nor especially caring, bar staff.

On a historical note, the Call Over existed in the days before i-this and e-that, and was the bookmakers’ practice of calling over, at a pub, club or some other, secure (cop-free) venue the list of runners with their ante-post prices. Off-course Bookmaking was illegal until May 1st 1961, so the Call Over, where no money ever changed hands, was the solution. You had to be “a face”, or traceable through your association with the venue or organiser, to make a bet and you were expected to settle promptly when the event’s course was run.

After the Call Over, we’d have dinner with Prescott and assorted Newmarket folk at The Forge, a newly-opened restaurant brasserie in Southport, which became a second home. The next morning at about 6:00 am and sans breakfast, we were on the field at Altcar. I had not a clue what was going on, nor what was expected of me. Still, I met many charming and very generous people. By 8:00 am, I had drunk an extraordinary amount of Kings Ginger, Port and Something, Laced Coffee and even had a piping hot bacon sandwich from the tailgate of a Newmarket trainer. The beat was apparently out, the hares were expected soon, the first dogs were being asked to go into the Shy, none of the dogs had drawn, the Bank was open and the Sloughs were free and while the wind was sharp and it was as cold as a freezer, the sun was shining on England. Even now, I can remember that cold day and wondering why The Bank needed to be open at that time.

My chum appeared, having dispatched his troops, and would I like to join him for a King’s Ginger in the commentary point? I did and fatefully walked into the world that would become my home every early February for the next 15 odd years. The Commentary box at that moment was crammed. In a corner stood the late, great Fenton Kirwan, one of the finest greyhound authorities in the known world – and very Irish. Sir Mark Prescott sat on a swivel chair alongside Nick Read-Herbert, both puffing away on huge cigars. Nick Herbert, (the future Lord Herbert of the South Downs) was in the third chair running the PA and security and beat radios. As I came in, he was announcing something or other over the PA, which boomed his cut-glass voice across the fields.

Anyone familiar with a county-show setup will know that these commentary boxes are generally 10 x 4 trailers and with my and chummy’s arrival, the cat could not be squeezed in, let along swung.  Perhaps it was this invasion of his workspace that started to make Nick Herbert’s blood bubble, or it might have been Lord Leverhulme’s Head Keeper, Stuart Wilcox who came on the radio and went on a significant tirade. It involved the words Shite, Nancy-Boy, Southern, Ferkin, gob, noise, hares, beat and scared. The tirade lasted about a minute. Essentially Stuart suggested that due to poor Nick’s relationship with his microphone, the hares had turned away and were now heading to Cornwall. Suffice it to say, that young Herbert hurled the microphone down, trumpeted that he had never been so insulted by anyone, let alone a keeper and that he was done. Stalked off, might cut it, but would not express the hauteur that accompanied his departure

An unsteady silence settled over the commentary box/trailer – which was at least now less cramped. “Not a problem” suggested chummy. “We simply need someone not doing anything. We need someone with a posh voice – and most importantly we need someone who is here, now.”

So from 1990 until 2005, I had the privilege of commentating at The Waterloo Cup. Now we all have to think again or create some other activity that we can look forward to when we take the decorations down. I toyed briefly with learning the Ukelele, but it doesn’t truly compare – on any level. I guess pro-tem I shall have to stick to racing. In that endeavour, I might have more confidence, if I hadn’t read the Wincanton Clerk’s prognostication for Saturday racing which has more caveats in a single sentence than Chris Whitty uses in a press conference.

“We might get to a stage where potentially I could say ‘I’m seeing enough to go again and do another inspection on Saturday”.

Chepstow will inspect on Saturday in the AM, Kempton will be fine, and the chances of racing at Fairyhouse are nil. More tomorrow, when I will have the tips.

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