Even though my parents were from Kentucky and married in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, I’ve never been that interested in horse racing.? I knew little about American horse racing and much less about how it was done by the British.? I had the idea of interweaving a race horse, Brian’s Bane, into the plot of Christmas Cracker, so some research was in order.? While touring north Cumbria and Northumberland, my wife and I stumbled into the Manor House Hotel in Haltwhistle.
Actually, I didn’t stumble since I hadn’t yet indulged in any alcoholic libation.? We sat at a table in the bar and I had (of course) a pint of house bitter and Kelly had a diet Coke.? Our standard order.? We noticed that the walls were covered with pictures of race horses.? It seemed the ideal place to learn about the sport.? Being the promoter and mingler that she is, Kelly found someone at the bar she felt I should meet.? I took my place at the bar next to a most interesting fellow.
My new-found companion was as picturesque as the bar he sat in.? He was probably in his late-sixties or early-seventies, somewhat grizzled in appearance, a small, wiry, unshaven chap wearing tweed and a flat cap.? I bought him a drink, which he quickly accepted as he finished off the one already before him with alacrity.? He then proceeded to natter on (a British term, that) non-stop for fifteen or twenty minutes.? To this day, I have no idea what he said, although I did try to look interested and nod knowingly once in a while.
Regional accents in Britain can be difficult to understand, especially in rural areas.? I assumed that was the case.? Finally, after buying my companion another drink, I gave up the quest and returned to my wife at our table.? It was then Mr. K. Hind, the proprietor, stopped by our table.? It seemed the chap at the bar I had been liquoring up was the town drunk.? He was well past coherency before I ever met him.? Mr. Hind, however, was an expert on the subject of horse racing.? For the next hour or so, he gave me an education.? I have included only the briefest description in Christmas Cracker, but I have far more extensive notes than I needed.? So what, in short, are the differences in racing on the two sides of the Pond?
In America, we have what the British term “flat racing.”? Our oval tracks are, obviously, flat and without any obstacles.? The British have those as well, most notably at Newcastle, Epsom and Ascot, but National Hunt racing is also very big there.? The simpler type is the Hurdles, which, as you might guess, has hurdles for the horse to jump.? The other type is Steeplechase and the only way to describe it is an obstacle course for horse and rider, with ditches, fences and water hazards that vary from course to course.? Cheltenham and Aintree host the most famous locations of those.? I gained knowledge of these races, their locations and winners, especially local ones.? It was fascinating and I do wish I could have used more in the book.? But at least what I wrote has some authenticity.
I cannot seem to get hold of Mr. K. Hind at Manor House Hotel (now Manor House Inn) in Haltwhistle.? I do not know if he still owns the establishment, but I did use pictures from the hotel’s website here.? If he still owns it and reads this, I hope that he will contact me.? I owe him my thanks and a copy of Christmas Cracker.