June 20 2010
If you are planning a high-rolling trip to the races, there’s nothing like arriving in style. But while swanking up in a chauffeur-driven Bentley may seem a good idea, it’s not so much fun when you get stuck in a traffic jam three miles from the track and the first race is off in 10 minutes’ time. That’s why it’s de rigueur at Cheltenham in March for the big players to swoop in by helicopter. Indeed, nowadays there are so many choppers whirring through the Cotswold skies that one owner with a military background says it’s reminiscent of his days behind the lines.
Back in the Golden Age of Steam, racegoers could journey to the course in beautifully upholstered Pullman carriages, enjoying food and drink served at their tables. One of the most popular services was the old Brighton Belle, which was a great favourite of bookies and punters on their way down to Brighton Races in the 1950s and 1960s. The standard of the racing at the Sussex track was notoriously dodgy, but the famous kippers on the train at breakfast got the day off to a perfect start, while many a high-stakes poker and gin rummy game took place on the run back to Victoria.
Some racecourses, such as Newbury, Sandown and Kempton Park, have always had their own station and remain handily accessible for spectators who prefer to leave their cars at home. But if you really want to cut a dash in the 21st century, how about turning up by private yacht? That’s what happens at Meydan, the spectacular new racecourse in Dubai, which opened in January. The lavish facilities, which feature a 1.6km-long grandstand, include a marina on the eastern side. Nautical racegoers boating in from the Gulf can watch the racing from the decks of their boats without once setting foot on dry land, a bit like the waterborne Formula One fans at the Monaco Grand Prix.
You can go racing by boat in Britain too, albeit in slightly less opulent circumstances. Royal Windsor Racecourse, right on the banks of the Thames, is deservedly popular for its convivial evening meetings that take place on Mondays during the summer. It’s a regular destination for City racing enthusiasts who leave their desks in mid-afternoon, take the train from Waterloo and then board one of the French Brothers’ water-taxi services that run from the promenade near Windsor town centre. The ride to the course only takes about 10 minutes and you land a few yards from the winning post and club enclosure. If you want to spend longer on the river, private charters can be booked from Maidenhead and the Runnymede Hotel and you can enjoy a cruise, complete with bar and barbecue, for up to two and a half hours after the racing is over.
Windsor’s leafy, figure-of-eight track is one of the prettiest in the south of England and the betting market is strong. One June Monday night in the 1980s, the bookmaker Victor Chandler took £1m in cash and credit at his pitch alone as his Square Mile customers flexed their muscles before Royal Ascot. One system that has saved me from finishing up the creek over the years is to back the favourite in the last race, but this month punters will have more than just the horses on their minds. An almost daily round of World Cup matches provides a big alternative attraction. A recurring theme of past tournaments has been a strong performance by the host nation, and South Africa could add to that record by beating fading giants France in Bloemfontein on Tuesday at 7-2 with Victor Chandler.