Arts : Books / Films By Graham Sharpe

Nothing To Lewes?

HAVING clambered to the top of the tower of the small but perfectly formed 1000 year old  Lewes Castle , which stands on an artificial mound at the highest point of the town, one is rewarded by a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

It is blighted, it must be said by the carbuncle of a building which is apparently East Sussex County Hall – how did they ever get planning permission for such a monstrosity, one wonders? It looks to me like some monolithic eastern European block from the 1960s.

But, if you ignore that landscape blot, and look beyond it, and to the right, there you can still see the site of Lewes racecourse, which disappeared from the racing scene some fifty years ago in 1964.Two houses are visible from there, which apparently were converted from the original turn of the 19th century grandstand buildings.

Local celebrations will be held in Lewes in September to mark the anniversary of the closure of the course.

A history of the course, written from oral memories, Lewes Remembers, includes one local’s memory of how ‘the older men and ladies used to erect what one could only call privacy screens and, if you’ll pardon the expression, they used to stand there on the course and shout at the top of their voice: ‘Piddle and poop a penny!’ It was the only place one could go except for the bushes.’

Sunday, 14th September will see all sorts of activities going on in Lewes to mark the golden anniversary of the closing of the course, which will culminate with a parade up to the site of the track.

Lewes still boasts three or four second hand book shops, but a pretty below average selection of racing books, so I was unable to contribute to the local economy via that route.

Interesting incident on the train from Brighton to Lewes, which took, I don’t know, twenty minutes or so, during which time the chap sitting next to me was completely engrossed in his ipodpad thing, tapping away urgently and ignoring everything happening around him.

Until I mentioned that one of the stations we were about to reach was similar to the name of one of the friends on the train with me. As soon as he heard the name of the place he looked up like a startled rabbit and stopped ipodding. He turned to me and said with a completely straight face: ‘Whatever you do, don’t get off there. If you do, you’ll never make it back to the train.’

Then he returned to his pod pounding and spake not another word.

I was very pleased that it wasn’t midnight, with the clouds scudding across the darkened sky as a full moon sent pale fingers of light into corners where they illuminated shadowy figures lurking in gloomy nooks and crannies.

It was like something out of a Hammer horror film – and I certainly have no intention ever of going to the place that must now not be named.

The culmination of two years’ research and work will occur probably just after that Lewes anniversary celebration, and is scheduled to happen at the Ayr Gold Cup meeting on September 20.

William Hill: The Man and The Business, the book I have been writing for that amount of time, is  to be published by the Racing Post.

Carrying out research and following up information is the most enjoyable part of creating a book, but it can also be the most difficult. No sooner do you scent a good angle or hear an interesting tale than something else appears to contradict it.

Such and such a person was virtually an alcoholic, someone will tell you. Days later you’ll be chatting to someone else. ‘Such and such never touched a drop you know.’

What do you do? – Well, you probably end up writing ‘liked the odd tipple’ so as not to completely disbelieve either informant.

But I don’t ever recall having to try to work out how one person could possibly be in two places at the same time, as I did during the William Hill research.

I was writing about the 1967 Derby.

For the first time the great race, run on June 8 started from electronically opened starting stalls. Short priced favourite Royal Palace had been ‘backed to win £1m at long odds’ wrote the Daily Express and was now set to start as ‘one of the shortest-priced favourites on record’.

But not everyone was happy with the race – and a William Hill spokesman had complained that the company’s ante post turnover was the lowest since 1947 – ‘This is due entirely to the substandard field and lack of top-class international competition.’

Joe Coral agreed: ‘This Derby is like a World Cup football competition without all the leading nations.’

An unusual feature of the build-up to the race was the massive public gamble on the outsider El Mighty, who was backed from odds of 200/1 to 22/1 after a Peterborough shopkeeper claimed to have seen the horse winning in a dream.

Coming to the two furlong marker, El Mighty, partnered by Paul Cook was in front and seemingly going pretty well.

Keith Morgan, who would become a colleague and a friend after I joined Hills in 1972,  was in the William Hill Trade Room as the race unfolded and, he says, at this point, ‘Trade Room boss Willie Alsford had turned a whiter shade of pale. Even the imperturbable William Hill had clamped his teeth down harder on his cigar – and for him, that was the equivalent of anyone else almost passing out!

Apart from that one gesture he betrayed no emotion, even when a fortune depended on what happened in the next few seconds.’

What happened now, was that El Mighty now began to find the pace a little hot for him, and he weakened rapidly, falling back through the field to finish 18th, with just four runners behind him – where the form , rather than the dream, suggested he should have been.

‘Willie Alsford picked himself up off the floor. Mr Hill just puffed contentedly on his cigar’ said Keith.

Hot favourite, Noel Murless-trained Royal Palace duly obliged at 7/4. Not the best result there could have been – but better than an El Mighty triumph.

I have no reason to disbelieve Keith Morgan – with whom I worked for years – and his telling of the story of the race.It makes a nice little story and I duly wrote it up.

However, there is another version of the events during the very same race, told by an equally reliable and credible witness, Peter O’Sullevan.

They are though, apparently, mutually exclusive.

Despite the low turnover,the winner cost William Hill £25,000, yet, according to the legendary racing journalist, William Hill, who was, he said, ‘Jim Joel, Royal Palace owner’s box neighbour’, was heard cheering the colt on, with cries of ‘Come on, Jim!’

Sir Pete wrote that William explained to him that he was happy with a Royal Palace win, ‘Because I am sentimental about horses, and this is a good one, with the right owner, who will not sell him abroad, but will stand him in England and make him available to all breeders.’

There you have it. How can I reconcile one of these stories with the other?

Unless William’s talents include shape-shifting or he had a body double for those occasions when he had to be in two places at once, there is no way both stories, both verified by extremely trustworthy sources, can be true.

I had two alternatives.

One, to declare one of these two good folk a liar by believing and including just one version of the story in the book.

Two, to cop out completely by leaving the story out of the book and instead writing about it here.

Which option do you think I took?