“There’s a mug born every minute, and thank God some of them live,’’ aptly named British bookie Fred Swindell once declared.

A reader's tour of the world's great racecourses

15:10:PM 05/10/2013
Corrie Perkin

There’s a mug born every minute, and thank God some of them live,’’ aptly named British bookie Fred Swindell once declared. Fred might have added a thank-you, also, to the centuries of kings, queens, noblemen, toffs, enterprising landowners, city councils and racing club officials who, over four centuries, have built some of the world’s finest racecourses. At Ascot, Longchamp, Flemington, Churchill Downs, Saratoga and the like, champions have become legends, heroes worshipped and records broken. And as these (mostly) scruffy dirt tracks evolved into vast sporting stadiums with their own legal gambling facilities, an international racing industry was born.

“A day at the races,’’ became a popular phrase, and in 1937 the Marx Brothers snatched it for their new movie. Today we have full-time marketing departments working on concepts such as “Royal Ascot’’ and  “The Spring Racing Carnival’’.

Thousands of books have been written about the great horses and trainers of the thoroughbred business. A new Hardie Grant publication looks more closely at the racetracks themselves. “Discover the very best the world of racing has to offer,’’ says Great Racetracks of the World’s dust jacket. 

This handsome book, packed with images, information and statistics, certainly fulfills that promise.

In an unlikely pair-up, Trevor Marmalade (ex-Footy Show, Hey, Hey It’s Saturday and now a racehorse owner and respected form analyst) has teamed with former BBC racing commentator Jim McGrath to examine more than 270 tracks, their histories, feature races and memorable winners. 

Their tour begins in England, at Epsom Downs, the venue of The Derby, first run in 1780. “There is nothing like Epsom,’’ the authors write. “No designer starting from scratch would dare come up with such a bizarre track. The Derby course was laid out in 1872 and is horseshoe shaped.’’

The English and Irish courses, with their rich histories and strong links to royalty, make fascinating reading. So, too, the French tracks, including the picturesque Chantilly, 50 kilometres from Paris and built around Les Grandes Ecuries, the lavish stables built by the Prince de Conde in 1719, and its adjoining chateau. “While it would be easy to label the prince an eccentric for his beliefs, his great legacy remains in the form of this magnificent structure,’’ states the book.

From France, through Europe, across the Americas, Africa and Asia, the book provides an armchair ride around racing’s best battlegrounds. Australia, of course, has its own section, with Victorian and NSW tracks given the space they deserve.

Even Birdsville and its famous annual cup is featured. The course, we are told, “is situated on a claypan alongside the Birdsville sand dunes … In recent times, barrier stalls have replaced the drop of a hat as preferred starting method’’.

It’s another reminder that in the right setting, at the right track, everyone’s a mug – and a happy one at that.


The Modern Melbourne Cup by Danny Power

$19.95 (Slattery Media)

Reflecting on his 1989 Melbourne Cup win with Tawriffic, trainer Lee Freedman writes in his foreword that “unfortunately, the fairytale win by a low-weighted roughie or a ‘hidden’ stayer bursting on to the scene to beat the handicapper that has been so much part of the Cup’s great history, is gone’’. While celebrating Australia’s greatest horse race, Danny Power’s compelling new book analyses key moments in recent Cup history when the race transformed from one that stopped a nation to one that captivated the world. 


Drongo: The Immortal Loser by Bruce Walkley

$19.95 (Slattery Media)

Retired journalist Bruce Walkley’s story of a 1920s racehorse called Drongo will resonate with anyone who has ever owned a thoroughbred and wondered why, despite lack of on-track success, the racing bug continues to bite. In a career of 37 starts, Drongo never won a race, yet his owners, trainer, jockey and support team remain determined. “In a slightly different world Drongo would have been a champion,’’ VRC historian Andrew Lemon writes. Walkley’s book brings to life a colourful period in Australian horse racing, and honors the horse that brought the term “drongo’’ into our vernacular. 


Kate’s Style: Smart, Chic Fashion from a Royal Role Model by Caroline Jones

$39.95 (Carlton) 

How many years have we been covering Cup carnivals, and how many years have we lamented the fashion choices made by girls who have mistaken Flemington for Seven nightclub, and who value “fascinators’’ as inexpensive substitutes for a great hat? Here’s our tip: buy a copy of Kate’s Style and follow the techniques of the Duchess of Cambridge. Take note of the cut of her garments, the quality of the fabrics, her hats, shoes and bags, then tell us you’re not impressed. Farewell strapless sundress, hello pale-blue knee-length dress with three-quarter sheer sleeves and boat neckline.


National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

$19.95 (Egmont)

Now in a pretty new hardcover edition as part of Egmont’s Heritage Classic series, Enid Bagnold’s 1935 classic is still popular among young readers. Despite her limited experience, horse-mad 14-year-old Velvet Brown dreams of becoming a great rider. Her ambition is realised when she wins a mysterious and untamed horse, The Piebald, in a village raffle. Under the watchful eye of trainer Mi Taylor, Velvet and Pie develop as a team. Their goal: England’s famous Grand National steeple race.

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