A Day at the Races by Peter May

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  • A Day at the Races: The Horses, People and Races that shaped the Sport of Kings



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    A Day at the Races: The Horses, People and Races that shaped the Sport of Kings

    Author: Peter May
    Published: 2022
    Available as hardcover

    View now at amazon.co.uk

    About A Day at the Races

    From King Henry VIII to Queen Elizabeth II, via the introduction of the Classics, a duel at Ascot, the first steeplechase, a Derby Day fraud, a huge Cambridgeshire gamble, the desolation of Fred Archer, a thousand-mile walk around Newmarket Heath, the greatness of Ormonde and Sceptre, Man o’ War’s record-breaking runs, National Velvet and Emily Davison, to the brilliance of Lester Piggott, Tony McCoy and Frankel, Peter May has selected over 100 days that encapsulate 500 years of the Sport of Kings.

    His short, informative, easy-to-read essays bring to life racing’s milestone events that set the nation on a different path, such as the 1913 Derby, and the sacrifices horseracing made to support the British military campaigns overseas. A host of anecdotes tell of the exploits of the racing fraternity and cast light on the psyche of those who were prepared to take on bets which, at today’s rates, would stretch into millions. Sure to rekindle fond, and maybe distant, memories of the races and horses that once dominated the sporting section of the daily newspapers.


    This book is an astonishing achievement in encapsulating half a millennium of the sport of horseracing in 128 vignettes. I am no historian, but Peter May tells these long-ago stories of the events and horses that form the roots of the modern sport in such a captivating way that I was engrossed. As Henrietta Knight says on the cover, “Peter May’s enthusiasm is infectious; his research is phenomenal.”

    The level of research is indeed staggering. While Arkle’s monumental career is condensed into little over a page, it loses nothing of its magic – it’s there in a perfect little nutshell with all the pertinent points. To compact an entire horse’s career or a life-changing achievement into so few words often requires as much research as telling the whole story, in deciding the salient details, and what to leave out. But May does this with both a lightness of touch and the gravitas that these significant horses and events deserve. He has a knack of writing in a non-judgemental way, deftly bombarding the reader with facts without them realising it.

    The one time the author really digs in his heels and tells us what he thinks is the final chapter, where he talks about the “concerning decline” of the sport as it shifts away from an emphasis on quality and sport to serving the bookmakers. As he so rightly points out, “Horseracing is not just about the betting, about winning and losing money, it’s about the jockeys, the trainers, the owners, the grooms, the races and, perhaps most of all, the four-legged legends that have decorated so many races with their fabulous talent and tenacity.” Perhaps this is why he writes with such verve – he understands racing’s beating heart.

    I came away with a sense of each vignette’s purpose within the canon of horseracing as a whole. For example there is a section on National Velvet which mentions how female jockeys were still not permitted in 1945, when the film came out. But it refers to the success of Rachael Blackmore today, and therefore the reader can understand the journey of female jockeys over the past 80 years.

    Although the historical facts are engaging and light to read, this isn’t a book to devour in one sitting. This is simply because there is so much content within every page, you’ll want to digest each story and remember it, rather than skipping through. Each vignette could be a whole book in itself, and May’s skill has been to distill each one to its essence and leave you wanting more.

    Naturally, not every horse, race, jockey and trainer could be included. But the overall effect is of a complete and significant work summing up the history of racing in an incredibly well-researched and written nutshell.


    A treasure trove for racing fans, this book illuminates racing’s journey over the past 500 years, as the author picks out the highlights of the sport – races, historical events, horses – and tells their stories. One to dip in and out of and cherish, to chew over each vignette and the part it has played in the sport we see today.

    View now at amazon.co.uk

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