Browsing Tag

National Hunt Racing


Horse Play: An Evening at the Races

Horses in the Coln Valley, the Cotswolds
The Cheltenham Festival, the biggest horse racing event—and arguably the biggest social event—of the Cotswold calendar, kicks off today. In its honor, I’m sharing an excerpt from a chapter of my Cotswold memoir, Americashire, about my slightly humbler experience of horse racing in the Cotswolds.

Spring in the Cotswolds means horse racing. This is horse country and manicured horse farms dot the hillsides, discernible by jumping equipment that from a distance looks like giant candy-colored matchboxes and pickup sticks strewn about the fields. The racing event of the season is the Cheltenham Festival, for which half of Ireland, also horse mad, descends into Gloucestershire’s pubs and inns. Despite my enthusiasm for trying new country pursuits, I didn’t manage to book tickets to any of the Cheltenham Festival days. (We had already visited the Cheltenham racecourse for the Sunday flea market, a worthy but entirely different sort of sporting event.) Lots of administrative tasks—paying bills on time, booking train tickets, doing laundry—had gone out the window since buying Drovers Cottage. Chores used to get done on weekends, but now the pressure was on to enjoy ourselves come Saturday, especially if the weather was nice. The manufactured pressure to have a good time, formerly the reserve of real vacations, had with the purchase of a second home become a weekly event. In a fine example of first world problems, we were going to have a good time whether we liked it or not. And in this case, I was too busy having a good time to make time to purchase some tickets that would have allowed us to have, well, a good time.

And so we watched the biggest race of the festival, The Gold Cup, on television. This was a much-publicized battle between elegance in the form of the sleek Kauto Star and brute force embodied in the gigantic Denman. Equally as interesting as the horses was the spectacle of the attendees. The place was swimming in gloriously vulgar hats that are as emblematic of English weddings and horse races as Hermès scarves are of French mademoiselles. I still treasure my own hot pink, pimp-feathered hat purchased for Royal Ascot the previous year. It may not be as versatile as a Hermès scarf, but the opportunities in life to wear vision-obstructing, fuchsia-colored feathers on your head are rare and must be taken. In the end, Denman crushed Kauto Star. It was a victory for brashness of every kind, including big hats.

Our only real horse race of the year took place at the village hall, and there had been much discussion beforehand about what this race would look like since it was being held in a village hall rather than at a racecourse. The consensus between D and Rupert and Ralph, who were going with us, was that it would be betting on prerecorded horse races shown on video monitors. We had gotten a race guide with our prepurchased tickets, each sponsored by local businesses so we could, for example, bet on Lamb Chop to place in the butcher’s race.

When we arrived at the hall there were betting booths with visored attendants and a bar set up in the corner. That’s where the similarities to a real racecourse ended. Attendees were seated around a giant central checkerboard set out in masking tape. Our assigned table was front and center, so we were on full display to our fellow villagers, like some kind of demented bridal party. Stroppy teenagers, three of each gender, jockeyed rocking-horse-sized wooden steeds painted in bright colors with mop-string hair. (Their parents definitely made them do it.) A tuxedoed MC called for volunteers to throw the giant fuzzy dice, the roll of which would determine the progress of the wooden horses up and back the checkerboard. D, no wallflower, was first to throw.

A childless couple and a gay couple shaken up with a few bottles of wine can be awfully catty. Well, awfully awful really. Between trips to the bar and the betting tables, Rupert and I spent much of our time comparing notes on the relative attractiveness of the teenage jockeys, neither gender spared. In retrospect, this was probably not a good way to endear ourselves to local parents. (We were sure we were whispering, but our perception could have been undermined by our blood-alcohol content.) Ralph then became obsessed with getting a turn at throwing the dice, an activity that had grown in popularity with each passing race. Elbowing small children aside, he finally managed to secure his position as thrower of the dice in the last race, following tense negotiations with the MC on a cigarette break between races five and six.

At the end of the evening, a young man in a wheelchair took the microphone to thank everyone. He was the beneficiary of the evening’s fundraising, which would go to buy a sports wheelchair he would use to play tennis. He was confident, gracious, and eloquent, so much so that we immediately sobered up in the full realization of what a generous community we’d so recklessly imposed ourselves on. This man didn’t need our charity. We were far more desperate specimens in need of our own fundraiser to pay for the many hours of psychotherapy we each required. Through it all our new neighbors sat on either side of us smiling patiently. We just weren’t sure if they would still be speaking to us in the morning.