As the setting sun stained the ramshackle white of the town’s houses, a burnished rose and the remnants of the dying heat shimmered futilely around the sweating crowds; a gun cracked. An instant roar vibrated in the distance, and the nearby crowd – still out of sight of the runners – drew in a unanimous bated breath.
This race course was not its customary circular shape, rather a gently meandering curve, so that the crowd was spread out along the entire length and would catch no more than a few fleeting seconds of the horses as they raced past. The roar of cheering was steadily growing louder, and as neighbouring punters craned over the flimsy orange barrier the horses charged into sight. Heads down, straining against the reins of jockeys who knew the distance still left to cover, flecks of foam and sweat gleaming in the fading sunlight, and the drumbeats of the flailing hooves beating a cacophonous rhythm into the ground underfoot. The swell of cheering reached its crescendo as the horses sailed past, and then slowly faded, the sound of cheering flowing through the spectators with the ease of a Mexican wave.
Instantly the crowd turned away; some with the air of dejection, others with the eager bounce which anticipates a sudden increase of money in hand. The final winner of the race, some 1000m down the line, was for many of absolutely no interest. For the winners, that have for centuries pounded their way down the beach of Sanlucar de Barrameda in the pink-tinged light of an August sunset, were determined by the position of the bookies you decided to place your money with.
The local children of the town, from toddlers to teenagers, every August build or patch up a small, makeshift cardboard hut. Huts that are generations old and have been repaired so many times that probably none of the original structure remains. Huts that have been proudly painted in hundreds of gaudy colours until they resemble arcade centres. Huts that are strategically positioned the entire length of the race with blackboards stuck on their outside bearing the indecipherable scrawl of the next race’s odds. The finishing line was the first horse to pass in front of the hut with which you placed your bet; a race track with infinite finishing lines.
Small scraps of grubby paper were exchanged between the lucky winning punters and the youthful bookmakers, and the flash of coins glinted. But more were lining up to place their bets with the eager-eyed children for the next race, who were expertly crowing out the latest odds. Chatter hummed and flowed in the stifling air like harmonies and the eternal sighing of the sea breathed the clinging scent of salt. The whiteness of the sand around the milling feet of the crowd gave way to a haphazardly drawn line of darker sand further down the beach and then, even further down, the pale blue of the fingering waves. A whispering hush disturbed the voices as the news that the next race was about to begin was rumoured.
Again, the gun cracked. Again, the roll of sound heightened. And, again, the horses tore into view; their hooves throwing up the sand, their sweat masking the smell of salt. The children in charge of their bookmaker’s huts had pummelled and forced their way to the front of the crowd to identify the winning horse. But instead of the usual outright victor, at one hut, there had been a difference of only a nose. The two children stared at each other. Both black-eyed and scorched dark brown by the sun, they contemplated each other silently, rewinding the last few moments. Then, as though the “play” button had been hit, the children started to argue. Foot-stamping and high-toned bickering ensued as they piercingly debated. Spanish words jabbered too fast to follow until a sudden silence fell.
One of the boys gravely stepped behind his magenta coloured hut and faced the small crowd of awaiting hopefuls. “Numero ocho”. Number eight. An instant clamour broke out as the disappointed punters half-heartedly argued amidst the background bubbling of the luckier followers of number eight. Gravely the boy repeated “Numero ocho”, quietening the protests into a subdued mumble. No sophisticated photo finishes; just the guess of two boys, aided by the unutterable fact that number eight had had less bets placed on it.
The eye of the sun dipped below the horizon, colouring the sky a final, farewell vermilion, and the crowd slowly melted back into the town. The children packed up their patchwork huts, squawking as they compared the day’s profits and racing to spend it as quickly as possible at the nearest ice cream vendor. The warmth of the day still lingered despite the swiftness of the darkness bleaching the sky and the waves once more began to creep slowly up the beach, smoothing the horse-churned sand for the next day’s racing.