Horseracing is a something that many people enjoy; a happy social gathering where families, single men and women, even pets, gather to enjoy good food and drink over a long and pleasant afternoon. Oh and some horses run around a track at some point, too.
I remember my first horse race like it was yesterday. I was unenthusiastic and reluctant about the whole thing, the idea of standing around in the hot Zimbabwean sun, watching a crowd of people cheering themselves hoarse while a bunch of poor animals are raced to exhaustion, all for big men to make big bucks. However, some friends of mine are absolute fanatics, and frothing at the mouth in their enthusiasm, they dragged me along.
So I stood there, armoured in my scepticism, looking on at the scene that unfurled before my eyes. It was fascinating really, the way that people group together at events like this. Like animals, we move instinctively towards our own crowd. So that's what it all came down to, all the cliques, leagues, classes: beast instinct. So simple, and yet so true. It was, from a sociologist's point of view, a goldmine. I imagined bespectacled nerdy professors in lab-coats jumping up and down in glee at discovering such a scene, where humans grouped together like herds of animals. In the heat of the African sun, people reflected their Safari counterparts.
The first herd was the hippos. Plump, fat, and exceedingly obese men, were huddled together in a glistening, rolling whole. These were the gamblers, the business men, whose sole reason for being there was to line their pockets. They could reel off facts and statistics about the horses and jockeys, yet not point them out from the line. With bellies bulging as much as their wallets, they wallowed in the heat of the afternoon sun. Dotted here and there in the herd was the odd thin man, a stray who'd wandered in and subsequently been trapped in the surrounding rolls, escape exits were blocked by podgy elbows or the odd prominent buttock. So they stood, grinning nervously, and hoped they would not be eaten in the more exhilarating moments of the race.
These men were all lined up in the leafy shade of the purple flowered jacaranda trees. It was a prime spot; close enough to the barbecue, or “braii”, to obtain ample portions of hot dogs and greasy chips, and a mere stone’s throw from the all important bar. Also, they were close enough to the stands, that when the race began they could shuffle over to watch from good viewing positions.
They stood, and joked, bald heads glistening in the afternoon sun, sausage fingers rolling over the notes in their pockets, as they talked about whom to back in the race. Which jockey and why. They feigned small talk with their hippo guffaws and cheerful jokes, but the seemingly trivial conversations were laced with agenda, as they tried to lure tips out of each other. After all, they joked tensely, what's a secret or two between friends? It's only a race anyhow.
From the betting hippos wallowing in their money mud, my eye travelled up the field, alighting not on herd this time, but a flock. The Wives. A riot of colour and fluttering movement. Dressed in their Sunday best (“This old rag darling? Oh I just threw it on this morning!”) and made up to the nines, they perched on chequered blankets and sheets, amongst lavish picnics. However, the food if admired and cooed at, it was not eaten; their beaked heads bobbed back and forth as they picked instead at the crumbs of gossip and scandal. They twittered in shock and squawked in gleeful horror, as revelations of the various members of the flock came to light. Only behind each others' backs of course, as after a few gin and tonics, one by one each women made her wobbling way to the toilet, knowing full well the eyes and smiles would soon turn to cocked eyebrows and the classic line, all familiar to female lips: “Well, I don't mean to be a bitch, but...”.
Periodically, members of the flock would strut to the herd underneath the jacaranda trees, and, singling out their amply proportioned better half, would exchange a cold beer and cooing smile, to peck out some money from sausage fingers.
Alongside their shiningly sweaty hippo husbands, the flock also fiercely guarded their offspring: The Monkeys. Strange that plumed and groomed birds could produce riotous impish creatures, but so be it. Must be the hippo blood. But they (“Loved”) their little monkeys, (“to bits darling”), in fact they (“never”) let them out of their (“sight”). And with a bird’s eye view, this does of course mean that the children can, while their feathered mothers glug wine and vie for the pecking order, play for hours unsupervised, around many corners of many buildings.
As the pack of monkeys, chattering in high pitched screaming voices, scurried along farther and farther from their doting mothers' eyes, they were regarded with icy disdain by the jockeys. Being of the baboon herd, the jockeys were close in physical stature with the screaming pack swinging through the trees, but their wizened wrinkled faces showed their supreme wisdom and age.
They were not all old, but wrinkles reigned supreme throughout this pack, through the stress of their existence. Being a jockey was no easy life for a baboon. Day in and day out, they raced. They galloped, they warmed up, they groomed, and they mucked out. But more than anything, they raced. And hey, they won big time; medals, trophies, plaques. But did they get the fame and glory? No. Was it the hippos, the monkeys, the birds? No. It was the bloody horses, of all godforsaken animals! In between races, while the jockeys were shunted off to sit on the grass, and given cold sandwiches and warm beer, the horses stalked mincingly to their Hollywood caravan style stables. There, in the style of the true prima donna celebrity, they whinnied commands and snorted complaints, and their every need was catered for; sweet oats, fresh hay, water at the perfect temperature, and they were groomed adoringly. The horses, I noticed with a flash of inspiration, as I picked my way amongst the herds, were the only people of the lot.
That was my first horse race. I enjoyed it thoroughly, the excitement, the drama, the adventure of it all. Who won did you say? No idea, I wasn't watching the horses!