Colm Greaves: How to survive Christmas festivals

Christmas meetings attract some of the healthiest attendances of the year, many of them newbies (or nearly newbies) to the experience of festival racing. 

PROLOGUE

In a recent (and completely imaginary) survey, a carefully chosen group of respondents from around the world were asked to come up with words that best describe the characteristics they associate with Irish people. In no particular order, the following were their top ten. Festivals, friendship, fun, food, fresh air, family, pints, wagering, sport – and finally, racehorses.

Our tourism boffins, smelling an opportunity, immediately assembled a high-level task force to design a spectacular event that would meet all these needs in a single happening.

They soon abandoned the initiative, quickly concluding that this was an unsolvable problem. Even the very superest of their super computers could not deal with so many complex variables and they retired, dispirited, back to their drawing boards.

So this week instead we will just have to make do with the Christmas racing festivals for entertainment. Limerick, Leopardstown and Down Royal, as well as all the thrills and spills that are beamed in live from Kempton Park on Stephen’s Day.

Small compensation admittedly, but still a welcome distraction from the interminable flow of mince pies, turkey sandwiches and charades induced family fisticuffs.

PREPARATION

Christmas meetings attract some of the healthiest attendances of the year and it is safe to say that disproportionate number of them are newbies (or nearly newbies) to the experience of festival racing. For these the friendship, fun, family and food elements often rate far above the traditional attractions of horse and wager.

This is understandable because racing at this time of year can be head spinningly confusing for the inexperienced and some rules and regulations might be helpful. Here are some.

Rule One:

Preparation is vital.

Rule Two:

Preparation for holiday racing should not have begun with that paracetamol and alka seltzer you had with breakfast this morning.

It really begins on Christmas Eve when there are still two full sleeps to racing, when you pop in to the newsagent for your holiday papers.

Regular racegoers will always pick up a couple of the specialist racing trade papers and spend time wisely with them on Christmas Day. Being wise on Christmas day has nothing to do with watching Willy Wonka or singing along with Julie Andrews and those pesky Austrian nuns.

‘Wisely’ in this case means immersion in the form guide and getting a good feel for the form before you go anywhere near the track – the fields are generally so large that any ambition for serious study between races is futile.

However, rest easy - it is not a disaster if you’ve already missed this opportunity – sticking a pin in the card or betting on a horse with a nice name is rumoured to have proven to be equally effective over time.

Rule Three:

You must stay warm and comfortable at all times - it is the bleak mid-winter after all. The beauty of Christmas festivals is that overcoats, anoraks, fleeces and sturdy boots override the clamouring need of summer race meetings to present themselves as fashion extravaganzas.

However, by far the best way to stay warm is to get to the track an hour before racing and colonise a space in the cosiest bar you can find.

Not only will this provide you with a toasty base to return to from your wanderings through the day it will also immediately separate you as one of those smug, happy looking people that the unseated peer jealously at through the rain and wind as they wish they had gotten there earlier.

The jealousy will increase even more if you also observe rule four.

Rule Four:

Although the standard of racecourse food has improved beyond recognition in the last several years, the chances are that there will be queues to eat. As the kitchen at home will be creaking under food that is about twenty-four hours from the compost bin you can go deep on the leftovers and don’t forget to bring the cranberry jelly.

PARTICIPATION

Rule Five:

Irish jump race meetings have an established beat and rhythm that has evolved through the centuries and if properly understood it will add to the enjoyment of the big day out. Think comparatively of All-Ireland final day.

Arrive at Croker, marvel at the surroundings, watch the minor final, enjoy the pomp of the band, the parade and anthem, the match, the presentation and then off again home. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Race meetings have a similar cadence. Not all races are the same, the day builds as it goes and you need to time your run correctly.

The meeting will start with a maiden hurdle or two, followed probably by a handicap hurdle, the big one, the one after the big one, a handicap chase and then finally, the holy bumper. Which brings us to rule six.

Rule Six:

Always, always stay around for the bumper.

The question has often been put; why is the bumper, (the concluding flat race) so important to the soul of Irish jump racing? At face value it is merely the last race on the card, there are no hurdles or fences to jump and usually contested by unfamiliar horses, many of them tending towards the plumpish end of the athletic spectrum.

The jockeys are always amateurs who are either too heavy, too old, too untalented or all of the above to make it professionally and because racecourse form is so scarce, the betting market is often illogical.

The answer lies in secrets. The Irish have a love of gambling that is only surpassed by our inherited love of secrets, preserved and sustained through the centuries by the sacred dictum of ‘whatever ye say, say nothing.’

To back the winner of the bumper immediately identifies you as a person who knows stuff that others don’t and are willing to bet on the quality of your secret information. So listen up as you coast through the betting ring or food halls. Somebody will whisper something interesting that could establish your reputation as a betting guru for years to come.

Betting on the bumper does not technically qualify as a breach of rule seven, which usually goes unobserved anyway.

Rule Seven:

You should always bet selectively and with due diligence. This will be difficult as every race on the island this week is interesting. The novice chase at Leopardstown today between Min and Identity Thief for instance could be prove in time to be predictive of champions.

The novice chase at Limerick this afternoon is a little gem and then we have Douvan, Faugheen and Valseur Lido among many others to look forward to as the week progresses. The best race for years will be at Kempton where the proven champion Cue Card takes on the brilliant novice, Thistlecrack, hopefully opening a rivalry lost since Denman and Kauto Star retired. So note rule eight carefully.

Rule Eight:

If you go racing the day after Christmas always be near a telly when the King George field gets to post. This year’s edition cannot be missed under any circumstances.

POSTSCRIPT

Racing, particularly at Christmas, is a truly enjoyable sport ‘in that moment.’ However, often its lasting value is only realised years later through reminiscences and ‘remember whens.’ Like “remember when Hughie picked out the 50/1 winner of the bumper on looks alone but the hungry git got stuck in a food queue and never backed him?”

Or, “remember when Fran picked the winning sequence in a straight trifecta but lost patience with the bet when the tote machine repeatedly rejected his dirty fiver?” Remember when Sean was in the loo at Leopardstown and..(Actually, let’s not remember that one. It’s a family newspaper.)

Rule Nine:

That’s the last rule, by far the most important one.

Christmas racing more than any meeting at any other time of the year is the one that leaves the warmest memories. It is a festival heavy with friendship, fun, food, fresh air, family, pints, wagering, sport – and above all, racehorses. The tourism boffins failed to solve the problem.

We’ll just have to make do with what we have.

Enjoy.

The jockeys are always amateurs who are either too heavy, too old, too untalented or all of the above to make it professionally


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