Today is bucolic British countryside, horses, dogs and money. Lots of money. Add amateur racing over formidable hurdles, regulation tweeds and the presence of both the local hunt and local folk and you've got a Point to Point. For those in the know, Point to Point racing is fast horses hurtling over stiff fences, first one home wins a prize and we who have bested the bookies come home happy. Unless of course we lose it all on the next race.
Point to Points are for non -professional race riders and hunt members who may or may not be the sons or daughters of the wealthy owners who provide the racehorses. Equine competitors must themselves be certified as having hunted with hounds at least seven times, a task better suited to those built for fast and slow, not just fast. Each race is at least three miles of 18 brush and log fences at a height of about 4 foot 3 inches. Some have ditches on one side or the other. Most horses can jump a little (2 feet), some can jump a little more (3 feet) but the true racing athletes are those who can run and jump and still have enough oomph at the end of a taxing two- round circuit to stay the course.
I introduced Tom to professional steeplechase racing a few years ago at Ludlow Races in Shropshire. A lovely course, a sunny day, enough wins and I'd created a monster. My enthusiasm was likely the fuel to Tom's fire as many years ago I was an exercise girl and rode a season as an amateur jockey at point to points. At my present age I think of that long ago self as having been remarkably stupid. I was not very high in the pecking order for rides and generally got what no one else wanted; the barely broken, the clumsy, and the truly maniacal. That I did not fall off (much) was luck, but that passion for speed, the beauty of an equine athlete soaring over a demanding fence and the thrill of a bet is a seduction shared by many less foolish than I.
There are well over a hundred Point to Points across the UK during the season, November to June, and while sometimes held at traditional race courses, they are usually a chance to enjoy a colorful event on beautiful land we might not otherwise be invited to. We are taking advantage of a farmer's generosity to spend the day on his lower 40 at the East Devon Hunt Club races at Bishop's Court near Ottery St. Mary on a bright spring day. We pay to park (cheaper by the carload) in a green meadow surrounded by other race-goers who have brought their dogs, wellies and small children. The races are run just below us on a simple oval circuit that crosses two fields, runs up a hill and ends right under the judges' noses, where they make the close calls. We stop at the race card trailer to pick up that talisman of information that allows us to be in the know. Some of the horses entered have been scratched and we watch the board by the trailer that sells the race cards to know who is wheat and who is chaff.
Members of the hunt are present in full regalia as course chaperones, their solid mounts mooching around like relaxed plodders until they s print forward to catch a loose horse or chase a dog off the course. Just above the course are the bookies and the beer tent. Local ladies provide bacon butties, sausage rolls, cakes and tea to those who are not (or not yet) on their first pint. Market stalls offer us wrapped cuts of local lamb, free range eggs by the half dozen, home-made marmalades, tweed hats and flat caps. I can see Tom eyeing the stall selling heavy waxed jackets at an excellent price.
Bookies lined in a row, each has a tote board with their odds on the current race. Usually a two- member team, one writes, erases and re-writes as the odds constantly shift to reflect bets placed while the other deftly takes money and hands out betting slips to the patient queues of those with their eyes on the prize.
I have a mystical need to watch each string of wannabes waltz around the saddling paddock prior to their race and make my picks based on what the horses are telling me. I always bet on anything named Archie. Tom tends to choose horses who ring an Irish bell, are owned by a syndicate of local farmers or are named after one of the Beatles. Here's the wonder of our method--although we bet small sums and sensibly withold the bet from the winnings, we are remarkably lucky. When the number three horse I thought looked really good in the program throws me a "forget about it" look as he stamps around his warm up-- I forget about it. When a potential hero gives the crowd a saucy wink, my five quid go his way.
We place our bets, often hedging them by betting 'both ways' which reduces risk as it covers a win or a second or third. Taking our binoculars and bacon butties, we wander down the field to stand on a rocky hummock just over the stone fence from the long line of jumps that make the back end of the course. From here we can see most of the course in a 360 view as well as the pre-race parade past us of Land Rovers filled with volunteers, the hunt members' haughty steeds and the omnipresent horse ambulance which also serves as the knacker's van. Horses injured and "put down" in the field are used as kennel ration for the hunt's hounds. Their jockeys are not.
The horn blows, and they are off. At this distance we can only sporadically hear the
announcer calling the race so we concentrate on the spectacle by picking out our horse both by jockey's silks and horse's color. There are races for all categories of proficiencies but this one is hunt members and is considered a "fun" race. None of the prize money is big in point to points as their origin comes from the concept of one hunt member betting another hunt member gentleman to gentleman, that, "my horse is faster than your horse" and this race lets them duke it out. My money is on a neat looking gray gelding who had a pleasant 'can-do' attitude in the paddock and Tom's is a scarily big bright chestnut who looks like he could complete all 18 fences in one huge leap.
The sun shines, the grass is green, dogs and children chase each other around their families' picnic hampers and the galloping horses seem more a background for a nice day out than a tense win/lose high stakes race. As this race is for really amateur- amateur jockeys, some fall off. Some get tired and stop and some horses get tired and stop. Tom's horse is in the lead until the home stretch and he is beside himself with excitement as he bet him as a long shot but the jockey gets tired and falls off.
My horse gamely stays in the mix and brings me home a tidy little sum in third place.
We walk back up the meadow as overful Land Rovers spilling out raucous volunteers
trundle back to spend their winnings at the beer hall. The horse ambulance follows and we bring up the rear along with two young pram-pushing mums and their out of bounds older children who are climbing trees and hitting each other.
I collect my winnings and spend a portion on two jars of rough cut orange marmalade and two cups of milky tea but do not buy Tom a waxed jacket. Young women nattily dressed in mini-skirted green tweeds and look-alike Kate hair-do's saunter around with yappy Jack Russell terriers straining at the end of matching leads. The farmer selling his lamb seems oblivious to the effect the warming sun might be having on his open-air display.
We stay for four more races, cash in our final winnings and leave before the day is officially ended as we have a sudden need to see the sea. I can't help stopping at the saddling paddock one last time as the next race's hopefuls file in. A lively bay mare catches my eye, and for one breathtaking moment-- I catch hers. I see her galloping down to the winner's finish three lengths to spare at great odds and very nearly go back to wager my newly won fistful of pounds.
But I don't. Bon chance.
Royalty at the Races. Reuters 14.03.12