Certain sports resonate with the Deserter in all of us. Test cricket, for example, seems to assume that we’re all floating about in a post-employment socialist utopia in which we have nothing better to do than sip sangria and compare floppy hats for days on end.
Or think about that little frisson of excitement you get when you see that Everton are away to Rapid Lokomotiv in the Europa League and kick-off is at 4pm, hopefully with an orange ball.
But surely the king of them all is horse racing, the Sport of, er, Kings. On any given day you are probably only an hour or so away from a chance to take the country air, drink in the afternoon, peruse stats, gamble, shout, cackle and consume mainly brown foodstuffs.
It’s no coincidence that race-goers call races ‘meetings’. Next time you see ‘2pm, Meeting’ in a colleague’s work diary, think of this: He’s not at Jemima’s marketing de-brief at all, he’s flopping wedge on the nags at Ascot.
Racing is made for a Deserter day. You can leave (and return) home at the usual time, and apart from the slurred speech, Guinness stains and pockets full of betting slips, no one is any the wiser. The magic begins to happen as soon as you reach the station and board the train – the train going the other way. Here, gradually, you will spot the first signs that you are not alone: A Racing Post here, perhaps, a tweed cap there, someone with a tin of gin & tonic or a pair of actual binoculars.
These are people preparing for a day out of the ordinary, a day getting away from it all, a day, in short, at the races.
When Deserter mucker, Roxy, announced recently that she had never been to the races, I got on the phone immediately and treated us to some blagged tickets for a twilight meeting at Kempton Park.
‘What do I wear?’ she asked.
‘Stockings?’ I suggested, breathlessly.
‘Thanks, Jimmy Savile,’ she said.
Actually people do still make an effort to dress up, and why not? A bit of fancy dress helps the sense of occasion. A simple Barbour coat or some Hunter wellies will make you feel at home, as racing is traditionally a day out for members of The Country.
‘I am a country member!’ said Roxy, excitedly, referring to her lost years growing up in Berks.
‘Oh, yes.’ I said. ‘I remember.’ And she looked at me for a moment before giving me a thump.
Personally, I prefer a London look – a sports jacket, sunglasses, stubble, maybe a cravat, just to make it clear I’m only on loan to the countryside.
Kempton Park is only 35 minutes from Clapham Junction (and few more from Waterloo) but nevertheless we popped into a one-stop shop to pick up a couple of foil-topped plastic glasses of wine, which I can only imagine are manufactured for just such an occasion. ‘First Sign of Life on Mars!’ screamed the headlines in the newspapers, but I reached past them and picked up a copy of the Racing Post. I’m all for aliens and everything, but can they tell you the runners in the 4.05? Can they, balls.
Kempton Park station stands an apple’s throw from the racecourse (indeed, until recently it only opened on race days) and we followed the throng to the entrance. Once inside we found a row of blokes in slacks and anoraks transfixed by a horse auction in the paddock.
‘Talk about a sausage party,’ said Roxy. ‘I feel like I’m about to star in a gang-bang flick aimed at the Asperger’s market.’ And we retired to the bar to get busy with the Tote placepots.
I say bar, but more than anything the open-plan interior beneath the main stand resembles a giant betting shop, albeit one with drinks, food and women.
There is money to be made at the races, but it involves study, keen observation, maintaining your wits and having an eye for value, all activities that are sadly diminished by each successive pint, not to mention the contents of Roxy’s infamous hip flask.
‘Wow, look at number four. She’s magnificent, isn’t she?’ said Roxy, as we stood examining the horses in the paddock, noting their demeanour, stride and muscle tone.
‘HILF,’ I agreed.
Turned out she was trained by ex-Southampton and England great, Mick Channon. We lumped on and took our place at the very top of the grandstand for starter’s orders.
‘They look like horses with tiny men on their backs, in a mad sort of way,’ said Roxy, and I involuntarily inhaled some of my G&T.
‘Come on you jittery, glassy-eyed dinosaur!’ I bellowed as our selection entered the final furlong in second place. To much excitement, during which I lost the remainder of my G&T, our horse came home first. Our investment was tripled. We proceeded to spunk most of it on booze, pasties and more gambling. And the rest of it we wasted.
It wasn’t a busy afternoon at Kempton Park, possibly something to do with the fact that the races were on the ‘polytrack’ rather than on turf. In fact, Roxy was concerned she was witnessing a spectator sport in decline, but we were there on a Wednesday in December, to be fair. Summer days and weekend meetings still attract decent crowds but, as ever, we prefer off-peak, in the company of capitalism’s refugees.
Here’s our pick of other courses within striking distance for the city-based equinophile:
Just a few miles down the road, in Esher, Sandown Park may not be as cute as Kempton, but I have a fond memory of it. The last time I was there I asked for a whisky and ginger at the bar and was given a wine-measure of Scotch served in a pint glass.
Home of The Derby, you can watch the races for free here as much of the racecourse is on common ground. The Downs referred to are the Surrey North Downs and provide charming views to contemplate while you get right on it.
One hour from Waterloo and you’re strolling on bucolic country paths from the station to the course. Afterwards, tarry in the fine country garden of The Star Inn where our friend Half-life once freaked out about a tree that looked a bit like a horse, the irony being he was off his tits on horse-tranquiliser at the time.
50 minutes away, Windsor’s legendary summer Mondays are a must. Alight at Windsor & Eton Riverside and take the boat up to the course, a journey just long enough for a G&T in the glorious wood-panelled bar. You are allowed to take a picnic into the Silver Ring area and ‘one bottle of wine per person’. You knew that Jeroboam would come in useful one day.
Just as Folkestone (Kent’s only racecourse) was brought within one hour of London by the completion of HS1, Arena Leisure closed it down in a sulk. Very probably, we will never again sit by the fire in the exquisite triple-aspect grandstand bar. In better news, racing has returned to Essex at Great Leighs, just north of Chelmsford.
So, when you’re worn down, over-worked and consumed with the notion that life isn’t meant to be like this, remember: There are few things that stick it to the Man better than putting on a funny hat and heading off to a weekday afternoon race meeting.