An American in England

Eddie Mac's idea of heaven? Horse racing in England in the spring.

Updated: July 10, 2003, 1:04 PM ET
By Ed McNamara | Special to ESPN.com

It's a glorious Friday in June, the evening before spring turns into summer. The sky is clear and the temperature about 70 as a soft breeze wafts in from the sea. On a hill near England's south coast, you can see the Channel six miles off. From the grandstand, you look down upon an undulating grass course perched upon a ridge that gives way to the rolling hills of the Sussex Downs. The dipping sun paints the backdrop in green and gold as the field gallops toward the start for the 6:25 opener.

If there's a more scenic racecourse than Goodwood, I haven't heard about it, and I've played the ponies from Hong Kong to Saratoga to Chantilly. For looks, you can't beat the track on the Duke of Richmond's estate, and for variety, you can't top racing in Great Britain. On a recent visit, I made it to four tracks in seven days, bet all but one of Royal Ascot's 30 races (I got shut out) and came home with significantly more money than I brought. It's rarely that lucrative across the pond but it's always fun.

At 59 tracks in England, Scotland and Wales, thoroughbreds go clockwise and counterclockwise, up and down hills and even around figure-eights. They run 36-horse handicaps down a straight mile where they split up into three packs, with maybe 17 going down one side, 13 down the other and the other six up the middle. At Royal Ascot, there was a dead heat for first between horses on the opposite sides of the track. It took the stewards almost 10 minutes to sort out that one.

For handicappers, the options are endless. You can wager with the bookies on course or with the Tote, a pari-mutuel setup, or at off-track betting shops. Britain's biggest bookmaking firms -- William Hill, Coral and Ladbrokes -- have OTBs everywhere and offer so many ways to pull off life-changing scores or to go bankrupt. Parlays, pick sixes, doubles, triples . . . imagine any bet and chances are it's available.

Besides long-term future plays on classics such as the Epsom Derby, you can get fixed odds in an OTB the day of a race or even a few days earlier. Shortly after leaving Heathrow Airport, I was speeding west toward little Salisbury Racecourse with my old friend Neil Morrice, longtime English journalist and relentless gambler. I asked him for his pick of the week at Royal Ascot and he replied: "Macadamia in the Royal Hunt Cup."

The next day, I put 20 pounds on the filly at odds of 12-1 at a tiny, smoky Ladbrokes in Neil's hometown of Wantage, across the town square from a statue of King Alfred the Great holding a battle ax. Two days later, Macadamia easily beat 31 opponents in a mile cavalry charge after being bet down to 8-1. Thank you, my friend.

"That's the great thing about Royal Ascot," said California-based Gary Stevens, who rode one winner there, the fourth of his career. "The fields are very large and competitive and offer great value, just like the Breeders' Cup . . . To me, this is the ultimate in world horse racing."

Unfortunately, few people in the States pay attention to racing in the land where the thoroughbred began. Even among American turf writers, Royal Ascot might as well be staged on the moon. Michael Cloonan, a Chicago-based owner, is a rare exception. He put up the money to ship his 7-year-old sprinter Morluc from Louisville to England to compete at the five-day Royal meeting.

"It's a shame that more Americans aren't interested in this," said Cloonan, decked out in top hat and tails, at Ascot a few days before Morluc ran in the Group I Golden Jubilee Stakes. "It's such a great scene."

Before leaving for England with his wife and two children, Cloonan was pumped. "I always wanted to run a horse at Royal Ascot," he said in a telephone interview. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some people think we're nuts for trying this, but even if he doesn't run a lick, it will still be a great experience for us."

Morluc was stabled at Newmarket, ancestral home of English racing and still its headquarters. Besides having one of the world's most famous racecourses, the small country town is surrounded by stud farms. Think of Lexington with a British accent. "What a terrific place," Cloonan said. "Even the workout gallops have names. It's like horse heaven there."

Unfortunately for Cloonan, his Royal Ascot experience turned to hell when Morluc suffered an ankle injury and finished last of 17. "That was very disappointing," Stevens said. "The first dip he came to, he just couldn't handle it and put the brakes on going down into it. He wants a dead flat track."

Two other American-trained horses also finished far back at Ascot, so don't expect many others to make the trip anytime soon. Their failures in the Old World shouldn't scare off racing fans interested in new experiences. Maybe horses from the United States can't win over there, but making a few pounds isn't that difficult if you follow the money, look for value and get a few good tips. Even if you lose, you'll want to go back.

Buy a plane ticket and a rail pass and contact me at edjn@rcn.com. For no charge, I'll help book your itinerary. Cheers.