Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Cromwell Races - doo-dah!

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.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Stepping Up

A friend of mine told me she had started wearing a pedometer – you know; one of those things that count your steps. The recommended number of steps is 10,000 a day for adults (children need to do more) - that's just to maintain a healthy weight - you need to do more if you want to lose weight. Apparently most of us don’t do enough.

She said she was feeling pretty smug because she went for a half-hour run a day, but she has a sedentary job, answering phone calls, and was alarmed to find that although she considered herself to be reasonably fit, she wasn’t doing the required number of steps.

As a writer, I too have a sedentary job so I wondered how many steps I do a day. I have been wearing one of these devices for the past three months (apart from the odd occasion when I wear a dress – there is no way you can ‘discreetly’ clip it to your knickers) and I can scientifically tell you that my average daily step count is 10,251.

Yes, that’s not bad (and no, that's not me - sadly), but the thing is that I was training for a 10km in that time. I am now training for a triathlon series so some of the steps have been replaced by swims and bikes – these don’t count on the gadget.

I reckon I’m okay because I make myself walk into town every day (that’s 4,000 steps and approximately a kilometre each way). I get lonely working from home and have to see or speak to a real person at least once a day, so I post letters or buy bread or just have a coffee at the cafe, so that I can have human contact.

There is a lot of support for people to be active for at least half an hour a day, which is a good thing – but if you are walking as your activity, that’s about 4,000 steps. I’ve seen people drive to the gym rather than walk, do a work-out on some machines, and then drive back to their office and sit at their computer. It’s not enough.

Adverts trumpet the benefit of various contraptions that look like instruments of torture and fold conveniently under the bed. Apparently they work all your core muscle groups in three minutes. That’s nowhere near enough steps.

Of course, people with active jobs in service and trades will do plenty of paces. I've seen stats that show how many kilometres people run in football matches (Stevie G does about 10km).

But so many of us work from home or from offices on computers and only get up to make a cup of tea or go to the toilet. Retail assistants spend a lot of time on their feet, but it’s standing still. Bank clerks, receptionists, and teachers are going nowhere – literally if not metaphorically.

I’m not suggesting that everyone run a marathon, but it is quite frightening to think how many more steps most of us need to do.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Great Mince Pie Bake-Off

I’ve been through this before – everything is upside-down here and the seasons don’t fit.

Certain Christmas traditions with which I grew up seem out of place in New Zealand. There is hardly any possibility of a White Christmas; turkey with all the trimmings will leave you feeling stuffed; it’s too hot to dress up as the fat bloke in a red felt suit and a big white beard (unless you live in Wellington); and the robins look different.
So I was delighted to be invited to a great mince-pie bake off. The lovely Amanda Wooldridge of XL Coaching and the charming Anna Passera of Vivace Group were holding a contest to see who makes the best mince pies.

In a blind tasting with a glass or two of bubbly, friends and connoisseurs gathered to taste the gourmet delights. And delightful they were. I love a good mince pie and these two were fine examples. Brandy butter, custard or whipped cream are often the perfect accompaniment, but these two varieties boldly held their own without need for enhancement.

I had some insider information into the secret recipes – apparently (as the French have always maintained) the key to success is butter. In common with that other Christmas staple (mulled wine), the coup de grace is the spirit you choose to add a certain je ne sais quoi. It seems that a soup├žon of whisky or Cointreau is preferred.

There has been some recent brouhaha over claims that mince pies can push you over the alcohol driving limit. To this I say pish-posh. Every second year chemistry student knows that baking alcohol means it’s not really alcohol anymore – something to do with evaporation or some such. This was exposed on BBC Radio 5 Live. Alarmingly the segment went on to condemn Christmas cake instead, for soaking up the three or four bottles of sherry that people (by which I mean my mum) pour over it in the lead-up to the big day.

I read that infamous killjoy Oliver Cromwell banned mince pies (the devil’s food or some such piffle) in 1647 and, since the law has never been revoked, it is still actually illegal to eat them in England. Obviously no one takes this seriously and they really are an institution. They are handed out as a treat at such diverse venues as trains and theatres throughout the land.

One of the big mince pie traditions, of course, involves leaving one out for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve to say thank you for filling our stockings. In our house, this used to be accompanied by a glass of sherry and a carrot for the reindeer. *Spoiler Alert* It was when I heard Dad asking if Father Christmas could have a glass of whisky instead that my doubts were aroused.

FC used to leave us clues to find our presents – we had to work for them, you understand. The clues often comprised complicated physics equations or anagrams of cabinet ministers and football teams. These were particularly challenging as Dad (I mean Father Christmas) couldn’t spell, but Dad always seemed to know what he meant – they had long chats over the mince pie and whisky, apparently. I liked to picture this for years, but really it was an obvious giveaway. That and the suspiciously familiar handwriting.