Sunday 27 July 2008

When you’re five years old, a gentle canter feels like a mad stampede!

Race Week is around the corner, and our city’s raison d’être is about to kick in once more, in the shape of a few handsome thoroughbreds and 250,000 drunken punters.
I cannot admit to loving horses. Unlike those many who can think of nothing more wonderful than to own, ride and care for the beasts, they are to me gracious, alien, intriguing and occasionally just downright scary.
My first and definitely most influential encounter with a gee-gee was at the age of five, when for some completely misguided reason my parents thought I needed to learn how to ride.
Nurturing a dream of some kind of high-falluting romantic lifestyle for their youngest child, while drowning in bourgeois ambition, they probably thought I’d need a good steed in the stables of the mansion I would most certainly own when I became the Managing Director of the country’s foremost advertising agency.
How wrong they were. Mind you, these were the very same parents who insisted upon dressing me in a sailor’s outfit before taking me to the very suspect local photographer.
So off I went with my Mum to a riding school out in Berkshire, where I found myself trussed up aloft what felt like a massive and powerful wild animal over which I had no control whatsoever.
As an adult looking back, I can now see that I was well-equipped, and that my horse was being held on a tight line, or whatever you call it. We were standing motionless in a circle, nose to tail, with five other horses, bearing what I knew even at that tender age were insufferably precocious little brats with names like Tristan, Horatio, Christabelle and Alexandria.
Then I saw my Mum walk off. How could the woman who had slapped me (gently) on the back of my hand for standing too close to the kerb leave me here?
If it was dangerous to stand with your toes on the bloomin’ kerb, and very very bad to run into the road, how come it was alright to leave me alone, sitting high up on something that might run all the way to Africa?
Then I realised that my horse was the only one being held on a line. All these other posh kids seemed to know what they were doing, and pretty soon our tight motionless circle turned into a line, and we were walking out of the indoor ring, into a field.
The children on the other horses suddenly tucked their feet into the little metal rings, and were bouncing up and down like very silly-looking little people as their horses spread out.
My horse was evidently unused to being kept behind the group, and decided the time had come to join his mates. With one flick of his head he pulled the line from the stable lass holding him, and headed off at a gentle canter.
At least, from what I know now, I’d say it was a gentle canter. Several members of staff seemed suddenly agitated, running at speed towards me and my apparently insane animal.
As somebody whose entire experience of moving horses up to that point had been riding the wooden rocking horse in Lilly and Skinner’s shoe shop, this gentle canter appeared like a crazed and frantic stampede.
Pooping my poor little five year-old self from toe to tippy-tip-top, sure that my life was about to come to a brutal and tragically premature end, I did what any completely untrained and inexperienced person would do: aiming for the horse’s neck, I grabbed the reins and pulled like the crazy terrified little boy I was.
Now I know that horses don’t like that very much. He reared up and threw me backwards, and then I was on the ground with people crowding around me.
That was the first and last time I sat on a real horse.
Having got past the need to ride, my relationship with horses improved by leaps and bounds. As a teenager, I sat watching the racing on tele with my Dad, who impressed me no end by placing his bets on the phone, way back in the 1970’s.
Whilst in hospital after breaking my leg on a motorbike (the adolescent male version of its female horse equivalent), myself and the other biker casualties passed many afternoons with the ITV 7, a guaranteed plethora of racing, fluttering and much craic.
At 19 I worked in a big truck garage under the Kings Cross Arches, and became completely obsessed with the complex bets on offer at the local bookies. Each day, I spread my tiny stake into grids of combinations of nine races, thereby giving myself reason to spend all afternoon checking the results.
In the 80’s, my mate Chris and I went to meetings, armed with overflowing hip flasks and an absence of equine knowledge that might fill a black hole.
But the great thing about gambling is that you do win occasionally, as I did at Epsom, with Dr. Devious, in the Derby.
What a splendid memory that is! Standing under blue skies, on the inside rail just by the final furlong, cheering and roaring as the horses thundered past, shaking the ground beneath our feet.
My Mum told me long ago that the only dangerous thing about gambling is winning, and that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,. She was right on both counts, so I’ve played it safe over the years, keeping my losses to such a vast proportion of my total betting that there has never been any danger of winning too much.
As far as a little knowledge goes, well, here’s my telepathetic and multi-sensory gambling method.
First, I stare at the little form numbers (they look like this: 13324-1) that precede the horse’s name in the newspaper listings.
Then I relax my eyesight; my mind glazes over, and I try to envision which runner’s list of numbers will soon end in a ‘1’. Like, if I can see that 13324-1 will become 13324-11, I’ll put my money on it.
But beware! If there are letters in there with the numbers, ignore the horse. If it looks like this: 231-FU2P, give it a miss!
My tip for Race Week? Take to Ballybrit only what you can afford to lose. Gambling is much more fun when you realise you pay to play.

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