The 1913 Harpenden Races

From the Luton Times and Advertiser, Friday 16th May 1913

Race Day at Harpenden - 1900s
LHS archives, HC 008

This article first appeared in Newsletter 120.

An  old-fashioned sporting fixture

This time-honoured fixture in the sporting world was duly held on Thursday, the 8th inst., and there were some good fields of horses for the various events on the card. The weather was not inviting for outdoor enjoyment, as rain descended in a series of smart showers throughout the afternoon: but this did not appear to materially affect the attendance; indeed, what with motor-cars and bicycles, in addition to other vehicles, there seemed more present than ever. Contrasted with the old days a more business-like aspect pervaded the meeting. In the days of the late Sir J. Blundell Maple, and indeed long previously, the annual sporting gathering was regarded as a great function; there were no malodorous motor cars in those days, but the country gentry used to drive up with their coaches and fours-in-hand, inviting luncheons were laid out and dispensed by generous hosts and an army of servants, and the scene on the Common, on a glorious summer day, reminded one more of a huge picnic. Nowadays this is all altered; the panting and obtrusive motors come hurtling on the course, just time for the first event on the card, and depart well nigh ere the last is finished. The social amenities, the gay laughter of the ladies, the chattering banter of the young swells, and the efforts of peripatetic musicians, which all combined to add to an inspiriting and exhilarating function, are in these days of rush and whirl sadly missing features.

Formerly, for very many years, Harpenden Races were invariably held on the Friday preceding the Derby Day. Then the fixture was changed to Saturday for some years, to be at length altered again to Thursday, as now. The heavy nature of the ground proved very inconvenient to motor-car drivers on Thursday, and they were glad to avail themselves of the help of old sacks and other material placed in their tracks by scores of men who evidently had been on a similar job before, and who reaped a silver harvest. Thousands of pedestrians, undeterred by the wretched weather, found the ground like a Slough of Despond, and progress was difficult and uncomfortable, but a certain amount of optimism and buoyancy carried them through. The racing was good of its kind, but there were few who confessed to finding “all the winners”, as the comparatively large fields were all against accurate predictions.

The races were run under the direction of the stewards, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Orkney, the Earl of Cavan, Viscount Hampden, Mr. Noel Fenwick, and Mr. J. Rutherford, and a committee consisting of Messrs. F. Crawley, W. L. Dalton, T. Fenwick Harrison, W. B. Nott, G. Oakley, C. T. Part and C. F. Sibley. Mr. Rowland Leigh being handicapper, Major C. J. Coventry starter, Mr. F. Eyles secretary, Mr. A. E. Hancock judge, Mr. Gresham Sheldon clerk of the scales, Mr. J. Sheldon clerk of the course and stake-holder, Dr. Cheese hon. surgeon, and Mr. H. F. Reynolds hon. veterinary surgeon. Among others present were Lady Orkney, Col. Daniell and party, Major Law, Col. H. Sowerby, Mr. Archie Gosling, Mr. R. C. Peake, Mr. E. B. Barnard,  Mr. G. L. Whately, Mr. and Mrs. C. S. Viccars, Mr. H. S. Bailey, Mr. and Mrs. Mervyn Thompson, and others.

A motley crew

As usual, there was a large congregation of bookmakers, outside as well as inside the betting rings and stands. The outside fraternity were a very motley crew, for the most part hailing from the East End of London; they had the eager, crafty look associated with their tribe; their speech, in keeping with their clothing was loud and lurid, their features bore the impress of the brute, and an insatiable keenness for coin of the realm dominated every look and every action. Away from these, on the course, were to be encountered scores of the tipster fraternity. These are the obliging gentry who will write down “certainties” in exchange for the trifling sum of sixpence; the philanthropists who arise very early in the morning to watch the horses take their gallops (when there are none to be seen), all in the interests of the casual racegoer and to enable him to return home a rich and happy man at the end of the day’s racing! The assurance and the audacity of these rascals is astounding, but laughable withal: and it is amusing to note how the gullible novices at the game take in their every word.

“They’re off!”

Meanwhile, the saddling bell rings, the numbers of the horses starting for each race are displayed in a frame, and betting goes on fast and furiously; there is an overpowering rush on the part of spectators to get their money on a presumed “good thing”, and the cries of the bookmakers become louder and more insistent. The horses are marshalled at the starting point; they are off! There is a hush; the betting man’s voice is silent; every neck is craned, every eye is fixed on the bend in the course as the horses come galloping onward. A name is shouted, and another; then a hoarse and continuous roar as they race by the stands to the winning post, and the name of the winner is finally proclaimed. Another hush succeeds this hurly-burly, this cyclonic vocal outburst: men reckon up their gains – and count their losses; and so the game goes on, and the afternoon passes to its close.

From the British Newspaper Archive OCR text of the article, corrected to the Archive original by J. Wassell.

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