Having been to the Alexandra Blossom Festival, I thought I should also try out another Otago event – the Cromwell Races. Him Outdoors works for an outfit who were going as their Christmas do, so we trotted along with them. We were picked up by a coach as we stood at the side of the road at Arrow Junction and then the day began.
Let’s talk about the horses first – that is (in theory) what we were there for – although the free food and booze seemed to be an equally big hit. I like horses – they are amazingly powerful beasts and I love to see them run. They paraded around the paddock before they hit the race course and you could see their glossy flanks and noble faces.
Horses are sociable beasts and also highly sensitive – picking up vibes from others around them. There were a couple of smartly dressed blokes on calm steeds who walked around excluding serenity for the racehorses to assimilate. These horses were friendly and liked the attention of being stroked and patted – well, who wouldn’t? – and between the races they stalked along the course by the railings charming the crowd.
I don’t really bet. The last bet I placed was on the final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup. ‘How many points is a drop goal worth?’ I asked, and was reliably informed that it was worth three. I knew that Johnny would kick us to victory in the last minute of the game – I just knew it. So I placed my bet for England to win by three points and as I screamed at the television and my premonition eventuated, I was indescribably smug.
When I went to collect my winnings, however, I was told that I had bet on the outcome of 80 minutes and not 100. They didn’t pay out. I was gutted (although England had won the World Cup after all, which sort of made up for it) and lost all faith in the TAB system, vowing never to bet again.
So, I sent Him Outdoors up to the little ticket window to hand over our five dollars to place (he has all the lingo) while I ‘studied the form’ – this consisted of finding a name of a horse that I liked or colours that the jockey was sporting (pink armbands were a favourite – I thought this might mean they were going swimming as well) and going ‘I’ll have that one’. This began with ‘Sweet About Me’, ‘Ratsandall’ and ‘Tiddley Pom’.
It turned out to be not the best method of picking a winner. I’ve since been told that the way to do it is to watch them come out into the birdcage and pick the one which does the biggest pre-race constitutional as this will make him lighter. It’s all about weight, apparently.
In fact, we soon realised that the best guarantee of success was to choose the horse that Chris Johnson was riding. He may be just a wee jockey (they’re all just tiny but very angry for some reason – they remind me of Rumplestiltskin) but he seems to know his stuff and we soon started betting on him rather than the horse.
In the last race he was down in the programme to ride ‘Illicit’ but he didn’t – someone else did and the horse plodded across the line in eighth place while the one that Chris Johnson did actually ride won the event. We tried to cry foul but the TAB people didn’t care – they really are heartless, that lot. As I said, I don’t trust them enough to bet with them.
The horses were great though and I loved watching and hearing them come thundering past. A vet's vehicle sped after each race, going a fair clip and still being well out-paced, but fortunately it wasn't needed at all and break-neck speed was merely a metaphor.
So there was horse racing and betting, but mainly there was drinking and leching. We were in a marquee where a barbecue service turned up, cooked steaks, sausages and kebabs, accompanied by heaps of bread and salad, and, after we had eaten it, they carted it all away again. There were bottles of wine and crates of beer – it was all kept cool in those chilly bins and everyone seemed to have sufficient.
At one point we went for a walk to see what the poor people did. It seems they went to the general bar (hastily established in an old shed), spread rugs on the grass and held impromptu picnics.
They sheltered from the wind and the sun as best as they could while some bought bag of the season’s first cherries from the back of vans. The army were there trying to recruit – although I wouldn’t have thought sunburned drunken hoodlums are exactly what you want in your armed forces – and in fact, the people we saw were wearing camouflage and eating ice creams.
There were a lot of well-dressed women. They go for the fashion and the occasion to wear jaunty hats or fascinators – what a great word for a few flimsy feathers.
A lot of them had made an effort and were tripping daintily around hanging onto their floaty dresses and sinking into the turf with their stilettos. To be fair, as the day wore on and the sun cream wore off many changed from swanky to skanky, but at least they all seemed to be having a good time – alcohol and inhibitions simply don’t mix.
The men let the side down somewhat. True, a couple had worn their best shirts, but most looked like your average Kiwi bloke – jeans, polar fleece, baseball cap with folded arms a bottle of Speights in one hand. Despite their lack of sartorial (or indeed any) elegance, they appraised the women like they were the horse flesh – standing and grunting as attractive young fillies walked by, while leaning against the railings with their backs to the races. You know what I mean, and if you don’t, this picture should tell the story.