When it comes to describing a race meeting there are two expressions guaranteed to make my toes curl, one is “family fun day” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and the other is “Festival”.
The former evokes images of being surrounded by hoards of marauding, out of control, little people and I am not necessarily just referring to the jockeys here, whilst the latter brings visions of beer swilling hoards in packed enclosures, for whom the racing is, at best, of secondary importance and at worse an unnecessary interruption to their drinking.
I realise, of course, that the children of today are the racegoers of tomorrow, however most of the children taken to the races are either deposited at the funfair / crèche or, even worse, allowed to run around aimlessly to the annoyance of those who actually want to watch the racing. A prime example was at Epsom recently when I was attempting to watch a race from the seating area, whilst little Johnny in the row in front thought it a great game to keep jumping up in front of my binoculars and pulling faces, even worse its mother was looking on thinking it was a great joke … well Madam I have news for you and other parents, not everyone thinks your offspring is the most delightful creature to walk God’s earth. If parents are going to bring children racing they should take the time and effort to let them learn about the joys and realities of the sport and not treat the racecourse like some glorified adventure playground. In turn courses should not encourage this behaviour by providing bouncy castles and their ilk, especially when, in some cases, such hideous monstrosities actually obstruct viewing of the racing.
Ah! I hear the parents say, why should we be deprived the joy of going racing because we have children? Two responses to that one – firstly having children is a lifestyle choice and with it comes sacrifices. However you can take your children racing with you, all I am asking is, if you do, you keep them under control and don’t let them spoil the enjoyment of others.
I have seen many well behaved children at racecourses, enjoying the day, enjoying the racing, learning about our glorious sport but for every well behaved child there have been two or three running amok, spoiling the enjoyment for others.
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Is it my imagination or are more and more race meetings stretching over a couple of days becoming festivals? More to the point, what differentiates a festival from other race meetings? In some cases, where the racing is of a high quality, it is obvious but a couple of days of medium or low grade racing at a small, gaff course hardly qualifies for festival status.
The other problem is that festivals invariable seem to attract large crowds whose main priority is to pour as much overpriced alcohol down their throats, rather than appreciate the racing on offer. To see what I mean just attend any of the days in the general enclosure at Royal Ascot, or look back at the mass brawl that occurred at the 2006 Guineas meeting at Newmarket. Cheltenham is the national hunt festival, yet the enjoyment of high quality racing is tempered by the vast crowds that takes the edge of the enjoyment of the racing.
It was, therefore, with some trepidation I crawled out of bed at 4:30 last Tuesday morning in order to catch the early flight to Dublin, for a day at the Punchestown Festival, Irelands’ answer to Cheltenham. Looking at the number of fellow passengers armed with a copy of the Racing Post for their in flight reading it was clear I was not the only one destined to visit the course a few miles outside of Naas, twenty odd miles from Dublin.
Why is it when you are in a hurry to arrive somewhere the flight will invariably be late, yet when you have time to kill it arrives early? So it was the captain proudly announced the flight had arrived in Dublin 25 minutes early at 7:20. The Punchestown gates do not open until 11:00. Having already investigated the public transport options I decided to hire a car rather than rely on public transport. Rather than try to drive into Dublin during the morning rush hour I opted, instead, to spend almost an hour and a half on the M50, the Dublin version of the M25, smaller but just as pernicious as its British cousin. At least it killed some time but not enough. So I visited the delightful gardens of Powerscourt House just south of the capital and if any other racegoer wants to kill an hour or so between an early flight and a days racing I can highly recommend this stunning location, even if it is just sitting on the terrace of the café studying the form.
I digress, Punchestown was calling so I pointed the car in the general direction of Nass but was diverted by a road sign apparently inviting me to commit murder, so it was a few minutes later I arrived in the small town of Kill. Sadly there were no gallows or machine gun posts, as I do have an expanding hit list of potential victims, more of those, maybe, in later articles. Instead I was driving through a small town populated by vertigo sufferers, or so I assumed as most of the properties appeared to be bungalows. There was a mall shopping arcade but no sign of the real reason for my diversion, an ATM, as I had forgotten to acquire sufficient euros to support my afternoon investments. Back on the road to Nass I soon picked up the yellow signs for “Punchestown Hunt Festival”, my hopes were briefly raised when I caught sight of a grandstand in the distance, only to discover it was the stand of Nass and not Punchestown racecourse.
Even without the yellow signs, finding the course was easy, just drive to the next police officer down the road and follow the posters for the various daily newspapers. Parking was easy and by 11:15 I was in the course with only three hours to the first race. There was also an ATM and unlike those at most British courses you were not charged a ’convenience’ fee for its use.
I need not have worried about arriving early there was plenty of entertainment including a mini orchestra playing popular classics followed by an attraction that, dare I say, even surpassed the racing. I had never heard of The Irish Sopranos before this day and I must admit when I saw them advertised in the racecard I had visions of three buxom, aged, harridans singing their lungs out. How wrong I was, consisting of two very pretty girls and a third, absolutely stunner, whose eyes and smile were so warm they could inflict more damage to the polar ice caps than any amount of global warning. Their voices held me spellbound, as they sang both classics and Irish folk songs. I could have watched them all day and I had almost forgotten I was at a racecourse ….. if this was an Irish racing festival I was going to enjoy it.
I am ashamed to admit before setting off I had set off I had this stereotypical vision of the day being an orgy of drunken Irishmen pouring copious volumes of the black stuff down their throats and getting more lairy as the day progressed. May I now, publicly and unreservedly, apologise to all Irish men and women for having such preconceived notions. Yes the beer flowed, yes people were happy, however there was none of the nasty, malevolent, atmosphere that can appear at British courses in similar circumstances.
More importantly the crowd were obviously real racing fans who had come to enjoy the racing, who cared about their racing, for whom the drinking was only of secondary importance. This became manifestly clear after Aces Four had taken his crashing fall at the last fence. The screens were up (oddly they were not green, as one would somehow expect in Ireland, but blue) and up for a worryingly long time. A large crowd was gathered near the scene, all subdued, quiet and respectfully aware there was a poorly horse nearby. When the screens came down and the horse was walking around an almighty cheer went up and spontaneous applause started.
As Aces Four began the long walk back to the stables I must admit I had a tear in my eye. Never before have I seen a horse with his head hung so low, looking so sorry for himself after a fall. At least he was walking back. As he walked down the course, the ripple of applause could be heard tracing his progress.
There were eight races, many shock results, I made a loss on the betting but I cared not a jot – for the first time ever, I had enjoyed a festival race meeting. When I left Cheltenham it was with the feeling that if I never went again it wouldn’t be a major issue. I left Punchestown wanting to return for the remainder of the week, somehow Epsom, where I was scheduled to be the following day, wasn’t going to hold the same attraction.
Even leaving was pain free, to my surprise I managed to find my hire car in the large car park at the first attempt. The Garde were out in force, directing traffic on all the routes leaving the course and at times there was an officer every couple of hundred yards, as well as at every junction along the route until you joined the major routes. More importantly they were also controlling traffic inside the car parks, thus ensuring a free flow of traffic and preventing those selfish individuals who think it is fair game to take short cuts across the car park in an attempt to avoid having to queue with everybody else. Dare I suggest the constabularies of Gloucestershire, Merseyside and elsewhere could do a great learn a great deal from their Irish counterparts.
Festivals – I love them (well the Irish ones at least), when is the next one?
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