Jo Foster: Over the stable door

IF awards were handed out for the tastiest racecourse food, Catterick would come up trumps every time.

The track is friendly, accessible, always in great condition and the stable staff canteen offers hearty home cooking to hungry racing recruits who cram through the door with their mouths watering. Roast beef, steak and ale pie, garden grown plum crumble and lemon meringue pie were the specials at last week’s meeting. Supplies are devoured well before the last race, so arriving late is a disappointment. Yard staff left at home regularly place orders with travelling head lads, who cart boxes of tray-baked cakes back home or risk life-threatening injuries if returning empty-handed. Barbara Ramshay from Thirsk and her team of ladies spend days baking before racing. “Everything is freshly made for the day‘ she points out. It is reasonably priced (subsidised by the course) and, unlike many other racecourses, offers nutritionally wholesome food for workers who have little time and a limited budget.

The majority of staff canteens at racecourses provide little more other than processed fast food – high in salt and saturated fat but low in flavour.

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Standards have dropped to a deplorably low level at certain courses, where profit has taken priority.

In a physically demanding industry largely reliant on 16-25 year olds for a strong competent workforce it is unacceptable to offer chips, burgers and chocolate bars and expect a healthy return. It’s similar to the NHS renting floor space to Burger King in our hospitals.

Diet is vitally important, particularly to those riding racehorses for a living, where there is no room for poor health. Maybe Barbara could take the problem in hand, as the British Horseracing Authority don’t appear to be interested.

As another hunting season draws to a close I will be enjoying the Pendle’s last day today. Richard Lloyd, completing his 22nd season as our huntsman, is still mad enough to go straight over whatever lies in his path.

This was my 20th season hunting with them (I know I don’t look old enough, but I started very young) I have learnt a huge amount from Richard since I began whipping in. Watching hounds work as a pack over pasture and dale is a magical sight and still sends a tingle through my veins. To be part of that is unique.

Mr Lloyd was telling me last week about a new bird he plans to breed off – of the feathered variety that is. Always a keen bird breeder, he built up quite a collection of rare canaries and finches in his garden menagerie before moving to Coniston. Many hours were spent deliberating over mating programmes and colour crosses.

It reminded me of a trip he once took to the local Fur and Feather sale, resulting in the purchase of a striking deep red canary – the “Red Barron”. This particularly expensive addition was all set for a starring role in his new procreation plan.

The morning after the sale Richard excitedly checked his cherished acquisition. He could not immediately spot Red Barron amongst the menagerie but, to his alarm, noticed the water in the bird bathing bowl had turned blood red.

Fearing injury he searched for his red canary. It had disappeared, all the birds in the cage were yellow. It was then that Richard realised he’d been fiddled.

Red Barron’s natural colour had been cunningly covered in red cake dye providing a perfect, if temporary, scarlet plumage and increasing its value tenfold. The dye only came out when mixed with water.

His breeding plan in tatters, Richard complained to the market, only to be told he was the third person today complaining about a bird that changed colour overnight.

Our huntsman is still left scratching his head over the incident: “I might not be the only one who fell for it, but I still haven’t worked out which of my 20 yellow canaries is actually the Red Barron.”