And so to Newbury Racecourse after Christmas, as a guest of the Board, for the Stan James Challow Novices Hurdle Race. It is, I fear, some 20 years since I last went racing; then it was to Doncaster, when I was a Government Minister. I was not Sports Minister – which would have been a sufficient reason for going to Doncaster racecourse - but Minister for Housing. I wanted to look at housing in Doncaster and to meet the key councillors. Normally, such meetings take place in a municipal office at which coffee and biscuits are served, while portraits of deceased dignitaries in red robes look down on us. At the end of these meetings, I would be presented with a civic tie by his Worshipful the Mayor, along with a book depicting all the listed buildings in the borough. I would then be asked by the Director of Finance for a large grant to correct some injustice in the Revenue Support Grant formula.
But this meeting took place at Doncaster Racecourse. It was indeed part of the council’s stock of accommodation, though it housed horses rather than people. I had decided to meet the council on a Race Day, when Civic Pride required the corporation to attend at the Race Course.
I fear I made myself unpopular by suggesting, with Thatcherite fervour, that they sell the racecourse and reinvest the proceeds in improving the condition of those in housing need rather than racegoers; or, still more Thatcherite, to pay off some of the Council’s debt – higher than that of a few developing nations. They rewarded me by advising me to back a series of horses that should have been in one of their residential homes for the elderly.
There were no such problems at Newbury, where the Racecourse is run by private enterprise – and very well run too – and with not a councillor in sight. Many of my constituents train, own, or ride horses; many others support the book-making fraternity by placing bets. It was appropriate for me to gain a brief insight into this lifestyle, with a highly enjoyable day.
However, my bets did not do well. I had cut out the sporting pages of the Times, but the racing correspondent was having a poor day. In one race, my horse and its rider both cleared the jump in front of the stand with grace and style; but sadly they did not do so together.