Saturday, August 02, 2008

A day at the horse races

I have never particularly liked horses. As a boy in the country I took them lightly (except for our cart horse), falling off and laughing, much to the annoyance of my sister, who felt that to ride and be fond of horses somehow raised the quality of one’s life to a higher plane.
I don’t like the smell of them, and they kick. Moreover, as they can not be house-trained, as it were, they leave their droppings where they feel like it.
As for catching a horse when it is loose in a field, I seem to remember that it was not easy. So we had to wait for the nag to pass water. Then one of us would dash toward it with a bridle (or some such) in hand, knowing that during this relieving process it would not move an inch.
My cousin, Fred, is a horsy/racing man, and is a member of that rather elite club, called Goodwood. And once a year he invites Margreet and me to the Goodwood races.
It is a lovely day out for us, but we have instructions to dress for the part. This means respectable – a jacket and tie for me, and something smart for Margreet.
This year we had the invitation to join him on Glorious Goodwood’s Ladies’ Day, which meant more dressing up than usual.
So off we set, with Margreet adorned in gold and amber colours, with a hat that wouldn’t blow off in the usual downland wind, long antique amber necklace, diaphanous long dress of warm colours, with woven golden shoes and matching handbag.
With my grey jacket, houndstooth pattern trousers (a bit like a chef), bright bow tie and suede shoes, we looked the part – a bit racing and a bit racy.
We were to transfer to Fred’s member-placarded car at the car park of a Chichester hotel.
On our arrival there it was clear what a different-from-usual day it was, when, in the car park there was a “limmo” that looked like half a dozen large shoe boxes glued together, with blacked out windows and wheels at either end. Behind it, at tables of drink, was a gaggle of gaudily-dressed and hatted young giggling ladies. Were they the "staff” of a London night club perhaps?
We transferred to Fred’s car and made our way slowly along the narrow roads toward the racecourse, with our genial host (late 80s) complaining of overtakers, large vehicles, and any hold-up for any reason. We were enjoying ourselves already.
With not only a member’s badge but an invalid driver’s badge as well, we were ushered into a field car park near to the winning post and important stands.
Then we were each lent a member’s badge. Badges are important in the world of horse racing. Ours allowed us to enter or pass through members’ enclosures. Stewards slightly dipped their heads as we passed. In the distance helicopters were landing (nine at my first count) to disgorge their cargoes of jockeys, potentates and owners.
Soon we were drinking Champagne and eating gravedlax and large prawns in a tented dining space. Toward the end of our meal a short cripple (a “character”, as many are at the races) came to sit at our table. He was a real racing man, having visited each racecourse in the United Kingdom. As there had recently been much publicity in newspapers and on television about the skulduggery involved in racing, (jockeys and their colleagues betting on dead-cert winners to lose), I asked him if he knew any of the crooks. “Two of them,” he replied. I had a feeling that he knew more.
Around us paraded a complete social mix of the elite and far-from-elite, dressed to the nines, Panama hatted, well bellied, short skirted, exposed bosomed, gaudily coloured and colourfully hatted – with no two outfits alike. It was strange that some of the shortest skirts barely covered some of the more formidable legs. We were told that in many cases the most outlandish costumes sported by the ladies were designed primarily to catch the eyes of television cameramen.
With the help of newspaper pundits, and before the racing had even started, Margreet and I placed our each-way Tote bets on the certain winners of each race.
Goodwood racecourse is considered by many to be the most beautiful of any. And I am sure it is. The view from every position is over rolling downland to where the start of every race, short or long, can be seen by all, and then followed, either through binoculars or on a large screen, until the finish.
The enormous fields within our panoramic vision were mostly yellow ochre in colour. Their grain was about to be harvested. Each field contained a patch of green maize as cover and food for pheasants, birds that would later be the targets for guns of winter shoots.
Below, and over the heads of a fascinating collection of animated colour, and the bright umbrellas above the bookies’ stands, I was delighted to see my choice for the first race romp past the winning post a clear winner. Such masterful equine selection was not to last, although I almost broke even on the day.
But win or lose, the results were immaterial when the occasion was the star reason for enjoying a lovely day at the races. Thank you, Fred.