Friday, March 19, 2010

Sport of Kings

I've had to use the schedule feature for this blog because as you read this (if you read it on Friday that is) I'll be watching horse racing. I could take a laptop with me and post from the track, but there's no guarantee that I won't end up lumping it on a nag in the last race to make up for all my previous losses and end up coming back without my Mac.

I'll be at at the Cheltenham Festival for Gold Cup day. Cheltenham ranks low in the list of illustrious horse race meetings in the UK, below the Derby and Royal Ascot, partly because the Queen doesn't grace us with her presence. Her Maj loves the gee-gees but she rarely graces Cheltenham (though her mum the late departed Queen Mum has a race named in her honor, the Champion Hurdle, and she approved heartily of the festival's bibulous nature). In her stead, given it usually takes place over St Patrick's Day, are thousands of Irish men and women, as well as a number of Irish horses and trainers. This blog is international in flavour, which means we will all be aware that wherever the Irish gather in numbers there will a party and much drinking. It is that which gives Cheltenham part of its unique flavour, as well as its bucolic setting, all rolling green hills, and the fact that the racing cognoscenti consider it to be 'their' festival, unlike Aintree, the home of the Grand National, which has a bigger profile in the public mind because everyone, from Grandmothers to toddlers, traditionally lays a bet on a horse, usually by picking the ones with the name they like most or the the jockey with the nicest colours (which come to think of it, pretty much sums up my system ...)

I'm not a big gambler at all. I save my money for other vices. But I do love the thrill of handing over some money, watching the race having made that investment and leaving things up to fate. I'm lucky, because when the race is over, I walk away and don't think of laying a bet until the next time I step on a to a racecourse, whereas others aren't quite as fortunate. Most of all I love the hustle and bustle of the racecourse - the shouts of joy and despair, the tic-tac men at the track side who offer their own odds and have their own sign language, the way the high-rollers and aristocracy in their suits and chauffeur driven cars mix cheek by jowl with seedy guys in sheepskins coats, cigarette permanently wedged in their lips at that angle that signals serious familiarity with the workings of bookmakers, and amateur punters like me. I also love the expectant hush between races as people summon sinew, pray to whichever god, or simply close their eyes and stick on a pin on a list of names in search of a winner in the next race.

When I get back tomorrow evening I'll update with a few photos and some recollections. If the Guinness hasn't made me blind.


Dan - Friday


  1. Sounds like the perfect way to spend a Friday. Looking forward to the photos.

  2. Dan - It seems as if the Cheltenham races appear frequently in Dick Francis novels.

    Many years ago I went to the Irish Sweepstakes race outside Dublin. Part of the crowd were dressed for the Derby, reminding me of the scene in "My Fair Lady". There were tents with sterling silver tea services and male servers with white gloves. There were the travelers looking for handouts or wallets, and then there was the great mass of humanity, of which I was part, there to see the spectacle.

    A man on the street asked me if I was going. He told me "the world and his wife" would be there, quoting Jonathan Swift, not Elvis Costello.


  3. Sorry Mason, but technological disasters, involving my camera and computer mean no photos. Though if there were any they would involve me grinning maniacally - I picked the winner four out of seven races and walked away with a tidy profit. I rather wished I'd bet more...

    The Irish were in full force last Friday, beth. Despite the relentless drizzling rain, the Guinness flowed and every place I passed seem to feature a band playing Fields of Athenry or Streams of Whiskey. It was my first time at the Gold Cup and the mass of people was amazing. 65,000 crammed in there. Quite claustrophobic at times but the good humour of all involved meant it was bearable.