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March 2020

With racing now ceased as a result of this awful coronovirus we are all heading into an extremely worrying and testing time. Here at Highclere we have today shut our office but of course we will be keeping all of our shareowners closely informed on the progress of their bloodstock. It’s hard though to be anything other than extremely worried as we all wait for the worst part of the pandemic to hit the country.

Since my last newsletter I have been in Saudi for the inaugural running of the Saudi Cup which was an amazing experience and not without its complications on a number…

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Since my last newsletter I have been in Saudi for the inaugural running of the Saudi Cup which was an amazing experience and not without its complications on a number of fronts. I arrived early in the week with about twenty other owners and trainers including Jason Servis and his wife, who of course trained the eventual winner. Things didn’t exactly get off to a flier - as we left the plane there were the people holding the cards with the VIP names on but sadly over half of the names were missing! I then became the sheep dog desperately trying to herd everyone to follow me even if they weren’t on the list. Then it was through to the cars which hadn’t arrived so I was left bundling as many as five people to a car just as a sand storm started. Everyone though was so patient - well most were but it was a stressful start that’s for sure!

It was fantastic to see everyone’s reaction to the racecourse which was to a person one of amazement with the new turf course looking immaculate. The opening gala dinner was at the National Museum in Riyadh and guests were treated on arrival to a traditional sword dance. Prince Bandar then joined in the dance only to motion to me to join him in the line!

Harry with HRH Prince Bandar

Refusing to do so was not an option so there I was swaying to the rhythm with racing’s VIPs howling with laughter at my pathetic sword dance moves! All of this was going on against a backdrop of Coronavirus drama as we heard that Saudi Arabia was not letting anyone into the country from Dubai or if you had been to Hong Kong or China. As most of the jockeys were coming from Dubai that led to a serious problem which thankfully was sorted from the high levels of government changing the rules for Saudi Cup participants. Ryan Moore though was turned away at Heathrow as he had been to Hong Kong recently but eventually he got on to a private plane and arrived tired and frustrated late on Friday evening.

The next day was the first of two days racing and the big event was the international jockeys challenge with the top men taking on the world’s best women. To witness Lisa Allpress from New Zealand getting up close home to beat Olivier Peslier was something very special and the reaction from the local crowd as she was led in to the winner’s enclosure was fabulous. She was the first woman to ride in a race in Saudi Arabia, and to win it was a wonderful piece of history being made.

Lisa Allpress becomes the first female jockey to ride in and win a race in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Cup Day was incredibly exciting and turned out to be a great international festival with winners from Bahrain, France, Japan and America. Frankie winning for Sheikh Isa from Bahrain treated the crowd to a flying dismount which of course pleased one and all. The big race was won by Maximum Security trained by Jason Servis in a thrilling contest as he just held on from the fast finishing mare Midnight Bisou.

Maximum Security wining the $20m Saudi Cup

We have since heard the appalling news that Jason Servis has been indicted by the FBI along with 27 other US trainers in a doping scandal that has rocked the Thoroughbred world. The sheer scale of this indictment is mind boggling and of course gives those against the sport fuel for their fire especially as we hear that some horses may have died as a result of being given the drugs.

Everyone involved with the Saudi Cup worked incredibly hard to make the event happen in just eight months. It has been such a thrill to be a part of it and to have seen it all come together and to have been lauded as such a success. This drugs scandal though is outrageous and leaves a very sour taste to say the least. Doubtless we will hear more very soon but if found guilty these trainers will have done more damage to the sport than is possible to imagine.

The next few weeks and months will be a great test to us all. I personally think that it will be a miracle if racing does start again at the beginning of May and fear that the starting date could be considerably later.

Stay safe.

My very best wishes,

Harry Herbert, Chairman

On The Track

With racing off until the end of April (and most likely longer) the winter National Hunt season has come to a premature end.  Cheltenham was very lucky not have been a casualty. Ballywood was our only representative this year but he ran with great credit to finish sixth and only beaten around eight lengths in a highly competitive renewal of the Grand Annual. He might well have run at Aintree where conditions would have been more suitable and looks capable of landing a big prize when things fall his way.

Great excitement in Australia as Ferus storms to victory for the second time in a row and hopefully he will continue to improve as exciting plans are made to get him…

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Great excitement in Australia as Ferus storms to victory for the second time in a row and hopefully he will continue to improve as exciting plans are made to get him to a city race track in the near future!

Ferus

Hijack was sadly unable to take up his big race target in the Paddy Power Novice Handicap Hurdle, relocated to Kempton, originally planned to take place at Sandown. This was doubly unfortunate in that the winner (McFabulous) was ahead of Hijack at Market Rasen and our gelding would have been much better off in the weights on this occasion, but at least shows he has a very bright future!

Hijack

Evander, having won convincingly at Sedgefield on Boxing Day, looked set to follow up at Catterick next time, but was far too keen going to the first and duly unshipped his rider! He made amends next time back at Sedgefield with a convincing victory and was all set to run this week before racing was closed down.

Evander

Another ready to run was Conceal who has been waiting for better ground but will now be roughed off for his summer break. If You Say Run may be out again on better ground should racing resume next month.

Whiskey Lullaby made a highly encouraging start when coming from a long way back (and also encountering traffic) to finish second to the highly thought of Nicky Henderson trained mare - Gran Luna. This lovely mare looks ready to win a bumper if she gets the opportunity, although her future undoubtedly lies over fences.

Whiskey Lullaby

Crievehill was due to be our first runner in the Grand National and sadly will not be able to compete this year but we must hope he can get there in 2021.

Crievehill

On the flat, Union could not follow up when odds on favourite at Newcastle, but didn’t seem quite the horse as on the last occasion and the winner might just turn out to be something a bit special. Union was allotted a mark of 81 by the handicapper, a mark that Roger Varian believes gives him plenty of opportunities.

Affable shaped with promise on both her two runs at Kempton and is ready for her third run. This lovely filly by New Approach certainly looks capable of winning races this season.

Difficult times ahead for racing and who knows what will happen over the coming weeks as our flat horses are kept ticking over in preparation for racing at some point in the future.

Rolf's Ramblings Part 1 - Edgar Wallace

EDGAR WALLACE

Sir Rupert Mackeson’s bookstand has a site on many racecourses, overseen by (I hope the ‘Bart’ will forgive my wholly inadequate description) its rumpled, proprietor. Inadequate indeed to…

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EDGAR WALLACE

Sir Rupert Mackeson’s bookstand has a site on many racecourses, overseen by (I hope the ‘Bart’ will forgive my wholly inadequate description) its rumpled, proprietor. Inadequate indeed to describe the man once seventh on the UK’s ‘Most wanted list’: absconding Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs was number two, so number one must have been of the order of Dr Crippen (more of whom later).

But what more would one expect of an Old Harrovian, self-confessed Mafia banker and international smuggler? His own novel ‘Bet Like a Man’ involves the cloning of a Derby winner and his ‘Betting Scams and Scandals’ has more than a hint of regret that he wasn’t involved in at least some of them.

Among Sir Rupert’s essentially modern-day stock you will find no works of Edgar Wallace or Raymond Chandler, prodigiously prolific authors, near contemporaries in the first half of the twentieth century. A ‘Mackeson’ was a natural as one of their heroes, or villains: who said pulp fiction?

Wallace was an ardent racing man. But a new biography, ‘Stranger Than Fiction, the life of Edgar Wallace’ by racing writer Neil Martin, grabs most attention if it’s laid upside down; the back cover depicts King Kong. Wallace wrote one hundred and seventy novels selling over fifty million copies; he had twenty-seven plays staged; regularly, often concurrently, he juggled at least four newspaper racing columns – but his place in posterity is assured by ‘King Kong’ since he wrote the screenplay for the Hollywood blockbuster King Kong.

Stranger Than Fiction - The Life of Edgar Wallace

The best of British-born naturalized American Chandler’s novels featuring his moody private detective Philip Marlowe were filmed, notably ‘The Big Sleep’.  Chandler said: “If my books had been any worse Hollywood wouldn’t have called: had they been any better I wouldn’t have gone”.  Chandler knew where he stood: Wallace barely gave himself time to stop and think.

Appetite for the printed word was never as insatiable as between the Wars. In 1926 alone, Wallace published eighteen novels: three years earlier, 6 June 1923, he gave the newly-founded British Broadcasting Company’s first radio report on the Derby.  It would break his heart that, just short of a century on,  the BBC has shed its racing correspondent.

No Booker Prize in Wallace’s day but the masses lapped up his output the instant it hit newsstands and bookshelves. His production line was, of necessity, as prolific as his gambling losses were massive. Today he’d be gifted one of those VIP betting accounts with which bookmakers cradle ‘losers’. In Wallace’s time bookmakers were less beneficent and he was constantly reminded of his penniless beginnings (he narrowly escaped the workhouse as a child) as the ‘heavies’ pursued him.

Jack Leach, pre-war jockey, then trainer, then notable racing chronicler, in his celebrated ‘Sods I have Cut on the Turf’ mocked, sympathized and eulogized Wallace in equal measure. Both men exuded “bubbling charm and razor wit” - of which the current racing scene has much need.

“Edgar Wallace was a friend of mine…he thought he knew everything about racing,” wrote Leach. “I never met a man who knew less. I believe he did tip a winner once, when the office boy had got fed up with all the losers and changed the selection. The trouble was he was in love with his horses, not a bad vice - if you have a bottomless pocket.”

Fortunately Wallace had a bottomless imagination: Steve Donoghue and Michael Beary, the leading jockeys of his time, were Wallace’s intimate friends. And obviously he was nowhere near as slow on his feet as either his string of horses or Leach described. He tipped under several noms de plume so that he would be right ‘some of the time’. But Wallace came famously unstuck as a journalist when he claimed to have witnessed the celebrated wife-murderer Dr Crippen’s confession. Lack of evidence cost his paper dear and Wallace his job. Today such ‘idiosyncrasies’ would be condoned merely as ‘fake news’.

Most of his works went out of print long ago yet the fame of one racing product, ‘The Calendar’; a play (1929); a novel (’31); a film (’48) was resurrected in 1966 when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, was advised to read the work which contained ruses to beat betting’s turnover tax. A newspaper cartoon had the Cabinet poring over the pages; every bookmaker was said to have bought a copy.

In another racing story, ‘The Flying Fifty-Five’, Wallace wrote of Epsom on Derby Day: “The hill was covered with humanity, the rails lined from starting gate to winning post on both sides of the course.” Bygone days indeed.

Martin writes: “He hungered for thrills and found them aplenty on the racecourse.” Surely there is someone of Wallace’s ilk out there with the ability to re-enervate the masses? Surely the buzz of gambling and lust for racing that he generated for a greedy nation are not lost causes?

Martin’s narrative stays ‘upsides’ Wallace’s furious pace. If Stranger Than Fiction had been any better it could have been in the running for top Awards: had it been any worse I, and Sir Rupert, wouldn’t be recommending it.

Rolf's Ramblings Part 2 - Racing's Blues

Racing needs some blue sky thinking. Eternal wrangling between conflicting factions over gambling and horse welfare and prize money and staff shortages creates a relentless melee.

I can’t claim consistency: I excoriate adjacent meetings scrapping for the biggest slice of Media Rights revenue, sucking energy out of a game stretched beyond limits. And yet, one Saturday…

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I can’t claim consistency: I excoriate adjacent meetings scrapping for the biggest slice of Media Rights revenue, sucking energy out of a game stretched beyond limits. And yet, one Saturday not long past I sat down to plot my route for three of them: Lingfield (early start), via Sandown (afternoon), to Kempton (evening). It was possible (just) to take in fourteen races, starting with the 11.15am at Lingfield and finishing, eyes glazed, with the 8.15pm at Kempton. Luke Morris once did Lingfield, Kempton and Chelmsford in a day (lazy fellow swerved Wolverhampton). Sean Levey topped that: Lingfield, Sandown and - Carlisle!

So here goes: Lingfield to Sandown - take the back route through Crowhurst to join the M25 at Junction 6. Left turn, then Junction 10 off the M25 for the A3 and  follow signs to Sandown – grid lock in Esher High Street and the regimental racecourse parking attendant, late of Checkpoint Charlie, permitting.

(You might have a last minute change of mind and head right (east) from Jct 6 and make for the M11 and Chelmsford, Dartford Crossing permitting).

Sandown to Kempton: by turning left at the first set of traffic lights away from the course and ducking under Esher Station bridge, you cut out the Hampton Court bottleneck. Proceed along Upper Sunbury Road (passing Fred Kano’s houseboat – one for an older generation –with the Thames on your left) reaching your destination at Kempton in as little as twenty minutes.

Alright, forget my convoluted pathfinding - Sat nav does it better. 

Occasionally some handler with a dual licence does the double: on a January Saturday, champion jumps trainer Paul Nicholls, having laid waste to a Sandown Park National Hunt card, ventured to Kempton for the floodlight meeting. I admonished him for taking the crust out of the mouths of poor flat boys.

Ah yes, crusts. Never claim a world record because some Johnny will feel compelled to break it. You climb Mt Everest; someone does it without oxygen; in a Batman outfit - and so it goes on. But unassailable is the record of the first person to be sole occupant of a racing Press Room (on a raceday). At Kempton, that same Saturday night, I was faced with loaves (well rolls) and fishes enough to feed if not five thousand at least the Press gang who mob the place once a year for Boxing Day’s King George Chase. But not on this particular Saturday evening.

Tureens of mushy peas and chips, a cauldron of mushroom soup, jugs of hot coffee and tea, and Pauline, the resolute octogenarian who has cheerfully served Kempton for aeons (my solitary coin tip looked as lonely as I felt), resigned herself to wheeling away all this fare - and the chocolate cake, size of a spare tyre.

I had the presence of mind to invite a couple of punters - the ‘crowd’ that dank Kempton evening - upstairs to reduce the mound of leftovers to a proportion enough to assure Jockey Club Catering that their munificence was not wasted. “Use it or lose it” I say (for once, that’s nothing to do with the whip). .

And the same applies to our threatened trade paper, the Racing Post, whose price has just risen to £3.50. The folk in our local Tesco’s are patronising the new upstairs eating area. The management’s notice on the store’s ground floor level news stand exhorts them, slyly pocketing their Post (other publications also available) on their way upstairs, to “Please pay for your paper before taking it up to the panoramic cafe.”

Now that’s what I call blue-sky thinking.

Rolf's Ramblings Part 3 - Cheltenham Attracts A Healthy Crowd..

Elegy for our current predicament. Just round the corner in the village we have friends who escaped China’s Sars epidemic, fleeing Beijing in 2002. For their return, as good neighbours, we hung a bag of Waitrose victuals on their door. Soon there was a knock on ours; there, on the doorstep, the whole family…come to thank us. Eek.

No panic buying in this household for the corona epidemic: no, and a notice hangs on our front door: “Waitrose (or Tesco) bags unnecessary, thank you.” Then again, if push…

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No panic buying in this household for the corona epidemic: no, and a notice hangs on our front door: “Waitrose (or Tesco) bags unnecessary, thank you.” Then again, if push comes to shove we might sponge off our neighbours’ stockpiles.

To ward off impending apocalypse, we’re told to wash our hands obsessively while singing Happy Birthday or the National Anthem. (The old disco classic I Will Survive is being revived. Goodness knows what they hum in Wuhan).

When the corona epidemic took off we were in India – just three notified cases – ahem - in a population of 1.3 billion. (As we left the figure rose to forty-seven). A butterfly flutters in Peru and the sonic waves reverberate to create an earthquake in Japan: a member of the human race coughs in China and the world cops…a cataclysm. Racehorse names often correspond to contemporary events – Brexit went in a flash: Pandemic is available.

Frivolity about the virus crisis is inappropriate, to say the least, but when England rugby players have their match cancelled to preventing spreading the contagion, only to join the 60,000 strong scrum at the Cheltenham Festival, I scratch my head (wear gloves if you do) in consternation. There was a ‘healthy’ crowd every day at Cheltenham: whether they stay healthy is another thing.

Crowds at Cheltenham Festival

The day after the meeting I went to Kempton where the executive followed “government guidelines” to carry on regardless. Whether that was the same advice that terminated most other sports (worldwide) who knows.

Racing has been taking place before silent stands in France but then their emptiness is plus ca change: some might accuse the BHA of shutting stable doors while the virus has bolted, allowing racing to continue here. Last week a cosmopolitan audience rubbed shoulders, and elbows, if not noses, for four-days in Gloucestershire. From last Wednesday the gates were slammed shut indefinitely.

Irish phlegm won out and Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliot took the bulk of the prizes, half the meeting’s winners plus places, back to Eire. Our champion trainer Paul Nicholls took to his pub for the first day when he had no runners. And there were no winners either, that opening Tuesday, for Mullins who eventually squeezed out one more third place than Elliott to take the top trainer’s prize.  

In the Unibet Champion Hurdle shrewdies took advantage of the anachronism of the mare Epatante receiving all of 7lb from the geldings. Her trainer Nicky Henderson was up and running.

On the second day Nicholls and most everybody else expected the favourite Defi Du Seuil (Altior hors de combat) to take the Two Mile Chase crown in a depleted Queen Mother Champion field. (I’m not giving the sponsors airing since, in the same week, they were fined millions for misdemeanours). Instead Nicholls’ grey Politologue, who reserves his best for Cheltenham, ran the rump of the field ragged.

Another shock in the championship race for the staying hurdlers on Thursday when Paisley Park, like Defi Du Seuil odds-on, was uncharacteristically mortal; an irregular heartbeat undid him and a 50-1 shot Lisnagar Oscar conjured up an unlikely Welsh fairy story. How one would have relayed the champion’s downfall to his blind owner Andrew Gemmell is something I’m glad I wasn’t tasked with. Characteristically he took defeat better than Paisley Park’s legion of worshippers.

The Magners Gold Cup field on a climactic Friday, for me, didn’t compare in quality with former historic renewals. But the race itself was inspiring. It was Mullins’s fourth victory of the day and a second successive Gold Cup for Al Boum Photo. The commentator couldn’t wait to yell “photo” but the winner had a good neck to spare over runner-up Santini.

Yet the searing, indelible moment for most people came when Goshen was careering so fast up the Cheltenham hill in the JCB Triumph Hurdle that he came into conflict with the last hurdle and got rid of the trainer Gary Moore’s son Jamie. Moore jnr will have to endure commiserations for the rest of his days.

Cheltenham faithful, made well aware of the threat the virus presented as other sports and gatherings were curtailed, appeared undaunted by the prospect of coming away with something unhealthier than an empty pocket. Meanwhile the trickle of fans continuing to patronize Kempton and Lingfield went round cracking the same joke – “we’re self-isolating”.

British racing looks to the Tripartite Group or some such steering group for leadership: the Chinese have their Triads. It seems as though China is first to get on top of their epidemic. How long before there are notices hanging on racing’s closed doors?

Rolf's Ramblings Part 4 - Credit Where It's Due, At Last!

Well that’s shut me up: never take credit. “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit” - Harry S Truman. Another American President, Donald J Trump: “I get credit for comb overs.”

So, I am in no way smug that years of moaning (some say whining, some say whinnying) about the absence of racing’s black employees from the annual Godolphin Stud &…

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So, I am in no way smug that years of moaning (some say whining, some say whinnying) about the absence of racing’s black employees from the annual Godolphin Stud & Stable Staff Awards had anything to do with James Frank, a Zimbabwean, being this year’s recipient of Employee of the Year. Or that runner-up in the groom/rider category was Shoeb Patel, originally from Pune, India.

England’s greatest essayist, William Hazlitt, made no bones about it. “You cannot make companions of servants, or persons in an inferior station in life. You may talk to them on matters of business, and what they have to do for you (as lords talk to bruisers on subjects of fancy, or country-squires to their grooms on horse-racing), but out of that narrow sphere, to any general topic, you cannot lead them.”

In the early nineteenth century Hazlitt put racing’s relationship between master and employee in a way that the current Nars (National Association of Racing Staff) leader George McGrath wished he had in his Christmas message. He subsequently apologized for his twelve point ‘spoof’ - a defamation of capricious bosses who treated their staff as little more than skivvies, lowest members of the social order. The Guardian called stable staff “relics of a more deferential age.”

I don’t know who McGrath (or The Guardian) was talking about – certainly not James Frank or Shoeb Patel.

Since 2005 when Godolphin began sponsoring the awards – worth £128,000 this year – as worthy as all the winners have been, black staff, around ten per cent of the workforce, haven’t had a look in. (There haven’t been that many winners from the Isle of Man or Sark but then they don’t qualify as ‘immigrants’).

James Frank got the double up as recipient of the gong for Stud Staff of the year. He is stalwart of Anthony Oppenheimer's Hascombe and Valiant Stud. receiving his Godolphin Trophy from champion jockey Oisin Murphy. Frank had, at one point, to go back to Zimbabwe to make an appeal to remain here. He’s now a British citizen, as are his wife and four sons. He’s been seven years at Hascombe, fortunate enough as he admits to be there in the time of Golden Horn, Cracksman and Star Catcher.

James Frank

Articulate and effervescent Frank, said: “Horses and horseracing have moulded my life. If I wasn't working in it I’d be back in Zimbabwe struggling with life. Racing there is not in a good place. In 2002 I came over. I used to ride out for Giles Bravery and decided I’d be safer on the ground – especially now with a wife and family. So I got work at the Swinburn (Wally and Doreen) families’ Genesis Green Stud. When I had a bit of a struggle returning from Zimbabwe Michael Swinburn got me back.”

There you have racing’s problems in a nutshell: difficulties with immigration and the incompatibility of family life and work in racing stables.

“On the stud it is like being at the United Nations,” said James. “My horse to follow? Domino Darling by Golden Horn who William Haggas trains for Mr Oppenheimer won her only race at Doncaster last season.”

Frank’s father was a groom and brother Daniel, a jockey. Similarities with Shoeb’s experience are striking. Shoeb’s father, a jockey in India, and brother Rayez preceded him at Stuart Williams’s Diomed Stable at Newmarket.

The big hurdle to the Awards is the nomination process followed by an interview. Brough Scott maître d’ of the Awards said how do you judge the worth of stable staff standing on a carpet?”

James Frank you feel could have conducted his own interview: often trainers didn’t nominate their foreign workers simply because they didn’t speak English well enough to give themselves a chance.  Frank can speak for himself; as can Shoeb Patel.

(Reminds me of the story of Richard Hannon Snr when he couldn’t get through to one of his multiple Indian staff on the Herridge gallops. Apparently Her Majesty was sat beside her trainer in the Land Rover as the string passed by, whereupon the trainer, perhaps remembering India was once the Jewel in the Crown, turned to say “You speak their language Ma’am. Could you tell him to lay up?”).

Not all Indians are as fluent as Shoeb. It’s not easy to Google his background on the BHA Awards site since they couldn’t get his name right. Patel (what we call surname) is also that of champion Indian jockey Trevor Patel. Patel’s proliferate in India (and the West Midlands). Ironically the original Hindi meaning of the word is Headman (nothing to do with stables).

Now on an indefinite visa, Shoeb said: “Maybe I could be an assistant in the future though (he laughs) I don’t see myself as the first Indian trainer in the UK. But I’d stay with Mr Williams if I was.”

Over three years with India’s leading trainer Pesi Shroff in Mumbai he rode in one mock race. “My favourite horse with Mr Williams (one of the most underrated trainers in the country) was Eton Rifles”. He was a many times Listed winner in 2014.

Godolphin were looking for a philanthropic way of celebrating their 100th Group One success hence the genesis of the Awards. Some trainers rather cynically wondered if the winners would head directly to Godolphin for their pay and conditions. Perish the thought: perpetuate the prizes – and give Godolphin the credit.

Rolf's Ramblings - An Exclusive

There is racing in Britain today – the Kiplingcotes Derby across the Yorkshire Wolds. If the race doesn’t take place – and it has for five hundred consecutive years making it the oldest in the country – then the last of the 15 Rules is “Should the race not be run then it shall cease.”

Even in 1947 when there were deep snow drifts one horse walked the four and a half miles from Etton, past Beverley racecourse,  across the A163 to the finish near…

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Even in 1947 when there were deep snow drifts one horse walked the four and a half miles from Etton, past Beverley racecourse,  across the A163 to the finish near Londesborough Wold Farm. So two horses are going to walk the course tomorrow. The ‘winner’ gets a trophy and £50. The runner-up gets £4 from every horse that runs – so today’s second will get his money back.

Out and About with the Highclere Camera

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