I constantly admire the Irish ability to make great sport and entertainment out of minimal resources. A case in point was the Road Bowling which I described in a previous post and a further example is our Sunday afternoon spent at The Races: not in a big grandstand at a famous course, but at a closed-off section of the R586 – the main highway connecting Bantry to Drimoleague and Cork. Through traffic takes second place, having to negotiate a diversion of narrow, bendy lanes in order to allow The Racing to use a half mile long section of fairly straight and level road (horse racing in Ireland is still measured in ‘miles’). Except when the Cork – Bantry bus comes through, when everything has to stop and move over.
Horse racing goes back thousands of years, and the Irish have always been good at it: Irish trainers, horses and jockeys dominate many of the big events in Britain. I was fascinated to learn that it is a non-sectarian sport in Ireland: it is governed in the Republic and in Northern Ireland by one body: Rásaíocht Capall Éireann. The British Horse Racing Authority has no jurisdiction in the North.
Today we were watching Road Trotting. It has all the spectacle of the sport: beautifully groomed animals with whimsical names, jockeys in outfits of all colours bearing stripes, chequers and stars – and bookmakers. But it’s all very local and approachable: no dressing up or flowery hats. As usual, everyone there is busy catching up with the gossip, but are always ready to have a friendly chat with strangers like us. The animals are ‘standardbred’, developed especially for both Trotting and Harness Racing (the latter involves a two wheeled trolley – also called a Sulky – being pulled along behind to carry the jockey – akin to chariot racing!); and, just to add more confusion, there are two types of ‘standardbred’: Trotters and Pacers. Trotters have the more natural movement: a diagonal gait in which the left front and right rear legs move in unison, as do the right front and left rear. Pacers, on the other hand, move the legs on one side of their body in tandem: left front and rear, and right front and rear. However, they need to be helped in maintaining their gait by wearing plastic loops called hobbles, which keep their legs moving in synchronisation. They are also especially shod to allow them to race on hard road surfaces without wear or injury. Hope that’s all clear…
The proceedings were controlled at a trailer from which a commentary was broadcast through a pair of loudspeakers. Cups for the presentation after each race were handed out through the door, while a man in a yellow jacket and a white flag was responsible for starting each race – a tricky affair, as horses and riders were seldom in one place at the same time, and didn’t stand still in any case. Another man had a red flag, and I believe his job was to signal a faulty start. All the spectators congregated at one end of the half mile stretch of road, so we only saw the start and finish of each race. Races were either over one mile or two, and at either end of the course all the riders had to make a 360 degree turn around some large bales of straw. All this looked rather chaotic.
The beginning of March has brought a very cold spell, and our hands and feet were suffering by the time the modest crowd began to disperse. Today’s event has given me a taste for the Sport of Kings, and I’m on the lookout now for some Harness Racing.