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Finished Last at Folkestone: One Man's Ambition to Visit all 60 UK Racecourses
By John Norbury
Troubador Publishing Ltd., November 2011, 272 pages paperback

Unlike in team sports where being a "visitor" at a remote stadium or arena can be very intimidating, the racing fan will never feel out of place visiting a racecourse away from home. The sights and sounds will be similar, the sport is the same, and the objective is the same: try to cash a winning ticket. As well, most sports fans could only dream of owning a team to cheer for, but in racing, with the rise in partnerships, ownership can be an affordable and rewarding experience both emotionally and financially. In his first book, Manchester native John Norbury covers horse racing through the eyes of a fan and horse owner, setting out to attend live racing at all 60 courses in England. At the start of his project there were 61 racecourses in operation, however Great Leighs went bankrupt and closed its doors for good before he had a chance to visit. The title draws from the fact that Folkestone was the last racecourse he needed to visit to complete the project.

Rather than write a "travel guide" of British racing, he presents the book as an autobiography, intertwining his personal life with his racing life, as both a bettor and an owner. The racecourses are presented in an almost chronological order, with a major event in his life serving as the crossroads. The first racecourses he discusses, he is frequently with his father, cheering on his horse Burnt Oak (affectionately called "Bernie") and schmoozing with top trainers and television personalities. The turning point was when his father tragically passed away after joining him for 16 of the courses. With funeral arrangements still being made, Norbury went to Catterick to watch Bernie run, at the insistence of his mother, as it was what his father would have wanted. It was only fitting that Bernie would come out of the clouds to win, and Norbury got to lead his horse into the winner's circle.

For each visit he describes in detail how the day went, probably in more detail than most readers would care to have. As someone who does not drive, Norbury explains how to get to the course by train, and he always seems to find a pub between the train station and the course where he would down a pint or two before the start of the races, his Racing Post newspaper in hand leading to conversation with fellow punters. He runs down the bets he makes, how he decided to play that horse (oftentimes he was listening to hot tips as opposed to actually handicapping the race himself) and how they fared. As an owner, he has access to the owners and trainers bars so he often describes the scene at these places, commenting on the quality of the hospitality. He highlights the courses that treat the owners best, saying this is important to attract more investors into the game.

Norbury was speaking from the heart when he wrote this book, and in some cases it appears to be an unpolished work, as if written in one draft. He frequently uses bold face for emphasis, as well as liberal use of expletives (censored by asterisks), as if the book was meant to be read aloud. Readers hoping to learn about the history or architecture of individual racecourses, or details on driving directions need to look elsewhere for this information, which is easily found online today. Norbury's focus is clearly on the fan/owner's experience and not on practical "travel guide" type details. His aim was more to entertain than to inform, as well as write a tribute to his father who brought him into the sport, and once the reader accepts the book for what it is, it can be an enjoyable read indeed. The book includes two sections of full-color photos, mostly featuring the author with the various celebrities he met during his tour.

The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime has a list price of 14.95 and can be ordered from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk for 9.86.

Rating:     4/5

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