24 OCTOBER 1952, Page 9

King Charles's Plate


ISTOOD by the finishing-post and looked along the course, that wide, straight strip of turf which eases itself into a hollow, then climbs until it breasts the hill and is lost. Beside me were the stands, grey and silent. As fat' as I could see, there was no person, bird or animal; and the only sound came from the leaves Which, like swallows circling for their southward flight, skirled above the trees or crackled in the dry, cold wind. What a place, I thought, in which to look for Charles II, of all ghosts !

But I've no doubt that Charles was there. Not all his time was spent in drinking, love and the warmth of palaces. Often in his life he must have felt the same wind cutting his cheek, for heused to sit in the King's Chair to watch the horses at their early-morning gallops. He used, too, to stroll about the heath, talking horses at any passer-by, however humble. More than that, he rode. With a party of friends he would ride from Newmarket to watch a race, settling himself at the crest of the hill, from which he could see the whole course. Then as the riders topped the hill and saw, far away, the finishing-flag, Charles would dig spurs into- his horse and, with his party, would fling himself into the dip and up the other side, turning the race into a shambles. This must have been great fun. But one day a Cambridge don, rambling abstractedly about the heather as dons will, found himself under the horses' hoofs. Whether or not the don survived is not known—one don more or less probably mattered little in those days—but undiscip- lined races did not survive. Charles himself- made rules, and subscribed money, for the first properly regulated race, the Newmarket Town Plate; and it was to see the 287th repetition of this-race that I travelled to Newmarket.

Charles rode in the Town Plate himself. Indeed he twice won it. Once the field comprised Mr. Elliot, Mr. ThoMas Thynne and the Duke of Monmouth,. who may have decided that the time was not yet ripe for rebellion. But someone who saw Charles's second victory wrote : " Yesterday His Majesty rode himself three heates and a course, and won the Plate— all Power were hard and ne'er ridden, and I do assure you the King won by good horsemanship." As I shivered on the heath, I felt sure that Charles's ghost would be hanging around.

However, for the moment, there was nothing less substantial than a few dry leaves, so I left the deserted course and went to the Paddock, which by now had come alive. Three bookies had put up their stands, and were barking into the morning such calls as " Three-to-one the field " or " Four-to-one bar one "- calls which I do not understand and which, I am relieved to find, awake no echo in my heart. But, apart from the bookies, there was little to remind the of the few race-meetings I have attended in the past. There was only a small crowd or, more correctly, there were only a number of small groups—elderly men in tweeds, elderly women with leather-wrinkled faces, fussing' and hawing round some relative who was to ride in the race. It seemed a family occasion, unhurried, good-humoured, peaceful. But, suddenly my peace was shattered. The rider with whom 1 had come to Newmarket rushed at me from one of the groups and said : " I've forgotten my weights. Go back to the saddler's and get me fourteen pounds. Also a hair-net." I'll tell you about the hair-net later. For the moment, I was fussed about the fourteen pounds. I jumped into the car and drove fast—for the weighing-in was only minutes away—and, as I drove, I wondered what on earth these weights were like. Supposing I came back with the wrong sort of weights, the sort of weights you put on scales for a pound of chocolates ? Would my rider then be disqualified and blame me ever after ? However, the saddler would know. I paused for a moment outside his shop to restore my breath, then walked briskly in. " I want some weights, please. Fourteen pounds," I said, as though I'd been asking for weights all my life, as though I'd taken a course in weights at near-by Cambridge. " We haven't got any weights," said the saddler. He was polite but he was final. I knew of no other saddler in the town; and the in were tieking..away. He must have seen the dismay in my face, the panic in my eyes. He must have seen before him a little boy who had lost his mother. Anyway he smiled. " I think we've got some bags upstairs," ' he said. "I'll get 'em."' Bags, trunks, sacks of potatoes— I'd have taken anything so long as he'd told me it would do. Soon I was flashing back to the course, bags and all, though. blast it, I'd forgotten the hair-net.

The hair-net ? You see, Charles II, had laid it down that anyone could ride in his race -except " grooms and serving men." He did not mention girls, and so, though it took them a surprising time to do it, girls began to enter this race. Today they dominate it—which was another reason why I expected to see Charles hanging around the course.

Back in the paddock, I found I had had no need for all that panic. The bags were " just the thing "—and the weighing- in had not yet begun, although there were only a few minutes to the advertised starting-time. I looked at the riders. There were eighteen of them, the 'highest number in the history of the race. There was Betty Richards, niece of the famous Gordon; there was Jaqueline Hylton, daughter of the famous Jack. There was that gay lady, who should be famous in her own right for she is more than fifty years old and the course is over four miles. There was Peter Wragg, son of the famous Harry, who also should be famous in his own right for being brave enough to break the women's monopoly. I looked at the horses. I cannot usually tell one horse from another at race meetings. They all look winners to me. But in this race any horse, from Tulyar to Old Sam who drays rounds the milk, may be entered, and Old Sam or his equivalent often is. I thought I might be able to tell Old Sam from Tulyar, but I couldn't because Tulyar had not been entered.

We walked down to the start, and by the time we had walked briskly back to the finish the riders were coming over the hill, and by and by Miss Richards was past the post. A little byer and byer my rider was past it, too, her net-less hair flying in the wind. A good deal byer and byer came the still-gay lady, bumping bravely to the last. Long after even she had gone, I kept peering down the course for another rider with flowing hair and flying cloak. But he did not come. Back in Newmarket I listened while men who knew talked horses. I never before realised what deep interest a man can take in a horse, even when he is not betting on it. Does a horse savage a stable boy or try to kick the bulb out of the electric light in his stable ? There must be something wrong with him. Is it the toothache ? Or is it something really deep-seated ?

he pulls up when leading by lengths in the straight, was it because his mother was once frightened by a finishing post ? All this and more amused me. It interested and excited me. And yet, through the talk, my head was half over my shoulder. At last we left Newmarket, driving along the High Street, past the Rutland Arms, past the Clock Tower and on to the Heath, The wind still blew; the dried leaves still skirled. In a hedgerow someone had lit an autumn fire, and the smoke from that grew towards the. sky, then vanished as the wind caught it. Perhaps the ghost of Charles the Second too had vanished in that wind. But I know he had been there; for, by the side of the road, at the very entrance to the racecourse he had loved, I saw, believe it or not, a full-blooded orange.