Newmarket is an unlovely place but no one could call it dull. The town and its racecourse are an anthropologist’s delight and on Saturday, 2,000 Guineas day, all of life was here with the range and colour of a Human Menagerie — by happy coincidence, the title of the best album Cockney Rebel ever made.
This day, this race, had lived dangerously of late. For a decade and more, the Guineas had been dominated by racing’s rich list, which tends to breed indifference in the majority. Meanwhile, crowd behaviour was causing concern — only last year, a brawl on the grandstand balcony landed three men in court.
Newmarket’s management recognised the loss of lustre — heavens, even the town’s newspaper led its back page this week with Ely City’s promotion fight rather than the classic — yet the dilemma was to engage a wider audience without causing affront and alienation. Hectic marketing ensued, and gimmicks aplenty, but it took a natural event to do the job for them.
Cockney Rebel was bought cheaply, at least in Guineas context, and named after the rock band, whose enduring frontman, Steve Harley, turned up to live the dream. Furthermore, he is trained by Geoff Huffer, who once played in another band, Mungo Jerry, then spent time in jail for duty fraud and now has a small-time string of 22 horses in a rented yard in the town.
You couldn’t make it up. Nor could you improve on the public appeal. Instead of the polite applause routinely afforded to blueblood classic winners from Europe’s wealthiest operations, Cockney Rebel and Olivier Peslier got a roar that would not have been out of place at Cheltenham.
At 25-1, he was the longest-priced winner since 1978, when Harley and his band were at their chart-topping peak. As the singer emerged from Victor Chandler’s box and stepped, dazed, into the winner’s enclosure, he was mobbed in a manner that must have brought back memories.
Harley, a Newmarket member for 30 years, has no stake in Cockney Rebel, whose owner is an insurance broker and proper, Bowbells Cockney, Phil Cunningham. Yet he had been up at 5am to watch him work and he had talked him up for weeks on his radio tipping slot. “I’ve lived the life, and I still do,” Harley said. “But this is right up there.”
And so, to Newmarket’s relief, rock’n’roll usurped drugs and booze as the talk of Guineas day. It should be all about the horses, of course, but instead, in recent years, it has been about the people — sometimes too few, often too drunk or high. There are those who hold that these days belong to the refined few who properly appreciate the majesty of the straight mile — that it would, in short, be better without a merrymaking crowd.
In her 2000 book on this singular town, where more than half the working population is involved in racing, Laura Thompson lamented: “The joke is that a place like Newmarket should believe for one moment that what it offers is not enough. That it has to bribe people with booze . . . ”
This, though, is the tightrope that modern racecourses must walk to balance their books. On Saturday, the coach-parties of swaggering Jack-the-lads were clutching probably not their first pints of the day in time to share a pose and an arrow with Eric Bristow, the “Crafty Cockney” himself, at the dart board in the Stan James marquee.
Then they clustered around the screens showing the Manchester derby. By 1.30pm, they were less interested in a paddock presentation about exotic horse diseases than in the range of exotic lagers in the Pretty Polly bar. Police and security were highly visible, tension mounting.
But then the racing started and soon, magically, Cockney Rebel had put smiles on scowling faces. The crowd of 17,954 was the best for seven years, and for all the beer and football and darts that turf traditionalists might deplore, there was no trouble.
“You’ve done it all, you’ve broken every code,” Harley sang in his iconic hit, Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me). On Saturday, the words applied just as admirably to Newmarket’s big-day presentation as to Cockney Rebel himself.