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Monday, March 27, 2006

Where horses reign and tweed is a must

A day out at the races

Why and what kind of people actually go to horse races is a question I asked myself last week while watching the Grand Military Gold cup at Sandown Park. For someone who has never been to a horse race before the image I had was of something glamorous and elitist, like Royal Ascot, with its colourful parade of hats and strict dress code. But in the military cup I expected to see elderly people dressed in tweed or uniform.

Instead I found myself attending an event full of young people, celebrating everything form Birthdays to stag do’s. Of course there was also the occasional Lady in tweed and the old guy in uniform falling asleep at the bar before the race had even started but they were in the minority. But these are exactly the people that give this event its authenticity.

“These days a day at the races is more about being seen rather than seeing the action on the track”, Stephen 32, dressed from head to toe in tweed, tells me while sipping on a glass of champagne. “At Sandown this is not the case. People come here for the horses, the fun and the gambling. It is less pretentious and more fun”, he continues.
He and his friends are camped out in the Vine Bar on the ground floor of the Primary Enclosure at the Sandown Military Gold Cup. They are one group of many young people celebrating a stag do by watching the races. The fact that none of them are actually able to see any horses from their position doesn’t seem to bother them. Every now and then they look up at the television screen to see who has won and whether their bets worked out. But it seems that their primary aim is to soak up the atmosphere and drink champagne.

“Today’s stag and hen dos are all about originality and style”, a spokesperson for stagweb tells me. “Horse races offer both, plus the excitement of gambling.”
Long gone are the days of just a night at the local pub or club followed by chicken tikka and a visit by an amateur stripper. Instead people now put on their fathers tweed, order a bottle of champagne and watch what used to be one of the most brutal races in the industry.

“Grand Military races used to be criticised for the numbers of horses that died each year but ever since they have lowered the hurdles there have been fewer accidents and the whole race has become more clubbable,” a spokesperson for Sandown Park explains to me.

Indeed, its seems like horse racing is on the way of putting its negative image of the past behind after the permanent attack of animal rights groups have left their marks on the sport. The fact that military races now have fewer fatalities, due to stricter rules governing the selection of horses, has certainly helped to draw in a younger and more diverse audience.

Although a horse did have a fatal accident that day and was presumably shot, it was done hidden from public view behind a green screen and nobody seemed to be too bothered by it.

While more people see horse racing as a new and exciting events venue it still draws large part of its audience because it is a major venue for gambling
“It’s the buzz and excitement of picking my horses out and watching the race I love,” John E. 35, tells me while placing another bet. “After all, if you remove the gambling, where is the fun in watching a bunch of horses being whipped by midgets”, he continues.

But how do you pick the right horse, if you like me know little about horse racing? “Go by the name you like best”, I was told by one men who just won on a horse named ‘Nice Try’. Well, I did and promptly lost ten pounds on a horse named Inca Trail. Nice try I said to myself.
While there is no fool proof way on betting and one has to be prepared to loose it’s the whole experience of a day at the horse races that makes the event so special. Gambling is only a part of it.

A day out at the races is something everybody should experience at least once. It is a great venue for most events and I bet it won’t be long before tourist will start to discover it as well.

Just remember what Don Faulkner told me when you are there: “It is every men (or women) for themselves at the races”. So don’t expect too much help when gambling your money on a horse.

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