Experience with horses? I’ve got plenty of it. I’ve ridden them, competed them, done dressage with them, even bred one (no mean feat I’ll have you know). So you see, we know all about horses in my family. But Racing? We didn’t know about it. We’ve always been complete novices.
As part of my ‘education’, ‘mother’ thought this should be remedied. Thus an evening at the races was planned for. We read the map, confused ourselves with it, annoyed my dad making him unearth the dusty fold-up stools from our old cross-country viewing days, hunted out the single pair of binoculars that had a wonky lens and crammed ourselves into the car. My friend, another racing novice, who had rather unwittingly agreed to accompany me on the outing, was rather amused by our antics. We must have looked like the Griswalds on tour.
On this balmy (in more ways than one) summer’s evening in August, we set off on a leisurely journey. Well, as leisurely as my dad would allow - we even travelled at two miles an hour for 45 minutes as none of us had anticipated the bottlenecks - more about those later…
Eventually, after the typical family stress about which was the best way to the racecourse (and duly getting lost on the way), we arrived. There was a brilliant smell of freshly cut grass in the air and plenty of people milling about. We came across some friendly folk in the car park whom we thought were parking officials. They approached us with brown envelopes - we thought they contained a map of the racecourse - they turned out to be tips in exchange for money. Common sense and ignorance prevailed - we think they did anyway.
Paying our entry fee into the racecourse proved an event in itself. For years my mum had trained me in the art of pretending I was young enough to gain a concession fee to events. There was to be no exception to this outing. My friend and I had to memorise our false dates of birth and somehow slouch to look shorter. It’s extremely hard to slouch in a convincing manner when having to walk through a rotating turnstile, believe me! Elbows and knees were banged to the noise of my friend cursing under her breath. I don’t think she had experienced the ‘slouch look’ before and couldn’t understand why my parents were so stingy about saving a couple of pounds. But when she saw the entrance fee, she also had problems believing the price - a tad expensive she felt just to see a group of horses flash by for 20 seconds every half hour. I don’t think she could see the point of eyeing up the horses in the paddock before the race either.
We wandered, we watched, we were completely baffled - we could recognise a horse: a head, four legs, mane, tail et cetera and normally we could recognise humans too (of both the male and female variety.) However, they seemed to have been transformed into something rather strange. They no longer spoke in a comprehensible manner, did funny little dances in tweed jackets on milk crates. Some were gesticulating on these milk crates, whilst others were ritually manoeuvring round them. They would advance and retreat before placing their different bets. It was like a game of Simple Simon; step forward three paces, back two, forward one, hesitate…. and pursue it like a mad man! Some ‘humans’ were speaking quickly in a new language which could have originated on Mars for all we knew. Facial expressions became a bit of an event for us too. There were six main facial expressions to be encountered that evening. The first was the concerned and thoughtful face of somebody playing Simple Simon just before the big race of the night. The second was the anxious look as the race starts. Thirdly, a sense of apathy before the race really gets going. Fourth on my list is the contorted look, as the horses enter the home straight. The fifth expression I witnessed was the extreme delight of a winner. The sixth and possibly most common facial expression was that of a combination of anger, annoyance and dismay at a loser.
We were amazed at the strength, stamina and athleticism of both the horses and jockeys - oh to be so light and nimble! It takes a wooden step and an extremely obedient horse to get me on board. I gave up on leg-ups a long time ago as the only person capable of them was dad - who proceeded to throw me over the other side on many occasions.
Even more incomprehensible to us were the Tote cubicles. They had monitors and combination bets with weird names that increased my dad’s determination to remain ignorant of everything - including the bar prices. At this stage we each tried to place a bet and failed miserably - we were to remain bemused by the system further proving my dad’s ignorance theory. The biggest impression on me that evening was the excitement of horses entering the home straight. The thunder of hooves, the adrenalin, the noise of the crowd was like nothing I had experienced before.
The evening was certainly one to remember. We left that evening as we had come. Novices, with no vices. We hadn’t bet, not got drunk and no wind-sucking, except from my dad upon seeing the prices of drinks in the bar. The blood had raced through our veins and we had thoroughly enjoyed it. And yes, I will return one day - but does anyone know where you can hire a good interpreter?