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Thrills of Slightly Different Color : To a Southland Fan, British Tracks Offer a Look at How Horse Racing Makes Summer Special, for Members and Commoners Alike


NEWMARKET, England — It was impossible to see if she jumped to an early lead or staged a comeback, but Lemon Souffle, Lord Carnarvon's undefeated filly, won a graded stakes race for 2-year-olds here the other day.

The only way spectators can see an entire race is on the telly, but no one trackside dares to look at a TV monitor. It's more sporting to squint into the distance.

In a tradition three centuries old, the venerable Newmarket "race course" is virtually a straightaway. Fans see and hear the horses thunder toward them, but can't determine the front-runners until the last eighth of a mile.

From the stands, it looks more like a quarter horse dash than thoroughbreds going a mile.

But then, Southern California racing fans will find other striking differences in watching and wagering here. Seating is not unlike buying a ticket to a baseball game. A padded bench seat in the "members" section--sort of like a box seat without the box--costs the equivalent of $25. The "tattersalls"--the middle section--fetches $12, and a spot in "the commoners," akin to the bleachers, is $3-$4.

Wherever you sit, though, views are about the same. Still, patrons in the members' section are properly attired in suit and tie, or dress, while fans who qualify as "commoners," based only on where they choose to sit, are a bit scruffier.

Bookies can hawk their wares--fixed and often more enticing odds--only in the tattersalls and commoners' sections. Though legalized merchants of chance, they are banned from the members' section. To compete with the noisy army of bookmakers, the track's parimutuel betting windows, called "the totes," do not skim 18-20% off the top for government coffers; the full pool is paid out.

Whereas the price of admission is steeper, the betting pools at Newmarket and other tracks in England generally are not as rich as in the United States. One recent day's Pick Six carry-over, called a "jackpot," was $28,000. At Hollywood Park, the Pick Six pool has reached $250,000 or more.

Even the terminology is different. In England, a horse can "place" by coming in first, second, third or even fourth in what's called "a large field"--18 or more horses.

The English telephone touts also deliver greater value. Call a 900 number handicapper in California and that could be a $20 hit on your phone bill. Here, it is said, "the finest touts in England" will supposedly pick winners for you over the phone for 45 pence, or 70 cents per call.

Indeed, at Newmarket, horse racing is almost a divine mission. They race on grass, are stabled and work out in private "yards" owned by trainers who, themselves, must have deep pockets and train at least 15 horses merely to be licensed.

Horses are pampered at Newmarket and in England generally. They don't run as often. California has a year-round racing season. In England, it stretches from April to November. The so-called "summer season" is a scant three days long at Newmarket and horses then move on to other venues. Fans go to the track to watch six or seven races on a single day, as opposed to the nine or 10 run at Hollywood Park or Santa Anita.

Many of England's finest horses are now turning up at U.S. tracks, particularly in Southern California.

"The vast majority of your turf graded stake horses have started their careers in England," says Adrian Beaumont, director of Newmarket's international Racing Bureau. "If an English horse has the potential to race well on firm ground, you will see it in Santa Anita or Hollywood Park."

The U.S. purses are richer. The Breeders' Cup, the high-stakes seven-race sweepstakes scheduled in November at Santa Anita, is worth $10 million.

Beaumont noted that R.D. Hubbard, chief executive officer of Hollywood Park, buys horses in America, sends them to England, "where they are trained very slowly and patiently," and brings them back to the United States in their prime "to maximize their racing and breeding value."

As Beaumont puts it, 3-year-old racehorses "trained the old fashioned way in England have less mileage on their clocks than their 3-year-old counterparts in the States."

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