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From Aintree to York by Stephen Cartmell

Release date: 06th April, 2006
Publisher: Bantam Books

List Price: £7.99
Our Price: £6.40
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From Aintree to York
By Stephen Cartmell
Bantam Books price: £6.40

If you've been gripped by the noise, excitement and enticing aura of Cheltenham's annual horse racing festival this week, chances are you enjoy a flutter. You may even be one of those people inclined to hurl abuse at your nag - ignoring the obstacle created by your television screen - as it labours along the home straight apparently shorn of stamina and enthusiasm, thus resulting in yet another miserable return on your investment.

If this profile sounds familiar, you're probably what Stephen Cartmell calls a small punter, not, I hasten to add, a phrase he uses derogatorily.

Whereas big-hitting punters such as JP McManus treat gambling as a serious addition to their horse racing business (earlier this week McManus placed a £1 million bet on Brave Inca to win Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle, which it duly did), the "admirable small punter" treats racing as a hobby and an opportunity to enjoy a good day out. Given that this description probably accounts for over 95% of the five million people who attend British racecourses each year, it follows that the majority of us are, as Cartmell observes, "more likely to have a few bob on a rank outsider than a 15/8 favourite."

Cartmell's relatively short introduction to From Aintree to York convinces readers that he most definitely falls into this category, thus ensuring that what follows is an enjoyable, wonderfully-observed jaunt around each of Britain's 59 racecourses.

His brief was simple: not to necessarily write a guide book, but to observe racecourses from a punters' perspective. During his travels, however, (16,000 miles in 18 months) he invariably had the unique opportunity to compare like-with-like, which means his subsequent rating of each course should be taken seriously.

For example, he awards Chepstow racecourse the highest rating, (despite having to pay to cross the old Severn Bridge) after saving a fiver on the admission cost courtesy of a friendly local and being roped in to help out with the boards displaying the afternoon's going. "The course," he writes, "is superb and should rank high on your list of 'must-see' venues," an assessment with which it is difficult to disagree.

Goodwood is the only other course Cartmell rates as highly as Chepstow, praised for its attention to detail and stylish racecard, although several courses run this pair close.

Whenever any form of subjective rating system is advocated by an author, however, readers invariably want to see whether they agree.

Accordingly, the first thing I did was to check out what he thought of the courses, such as Chepstow, I know reasonably well, before exploring others which I felt may have been treated a little harshly.

Although reluctant to criticise Cheltenham, for example, he's right about the stand facing a short turn, after which the course disappears into the distance: "The inhabitants of Oxford might enjoy a better sight of the middle section of the racing," he says.

Cartmell also endeavours to offer value-for-money tips at courses such as Chester, where paying for a posh cardboard badge and entry to the exclusive Concourse Bar does not appear to be worth £27,

He doesn't provide such information at every venue, but it would be churlish to criticise such an omission as Cartmell has attempted only part guide, part pithy observation, thus preparing average punters for their next big-hitting, on-course bet on a rank outsider - but then, as this book maintains, that's all part of the fun.

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