I am relieved to finally be free of the big stretches of time behind the wheel, but as if to rain on my post-driving parade, the Gods Of Probability do a right royal job of screwing up the trains. Two cancellations and some random guesswork later, via both Bristols (so to speak) and with the first race long gone, I arrive in Bath having picked up Al along the way (intentionally, and a friend, in case you were wondering). There are no taxis, though, and the second race now also disappears to the results pages without my involvement.
Eventually we find a taxi, and the cabbie tells us that the golf club are buying the racecourse and that soon Bath Races shall be no more. He also says a couple of other things that surprise me, so it’s a waiting brief and a bucket of salt on that nugget of information. Liam is waiting for us at the entrance, kitted out in his country squire attire with an added straw boater that he claims makes his outfit racing-ified. This affable chap will talk to anyone and Al describes him as “fly-paper for freaks”. I can’t miss another race so we rush in and I panic bet on an outsider because I don’t like the odds-on favourite, and yet again I am right but wrong – Lead A Merry Dance does just that to beat Glastonberry easily.
After almost 4 hours of train travel for what would have been a one and a half hour drive, I am now in need of a beer, and we retire to the Bath Ales bar. The barmaid pours the wrong pint and when I correct her she lets me have the other one for free. This proves to be my only winner of the evening.
Bath has tackled the problem of being inactive most of the year in a different way to Towcester – instead of building a greyhound track it has put an office block next to the grandstand. Suited gentlemen multitask by working and watching, and in another ingenious and efficient use of space, a phone mast doubles up as the furlong marker. Clever.
The next race is fascinating. We watch the 3 year olds in the paddock and Liam thinks he gets a wink from one of them; Al and I are not sure whether he means the horse or the stable lad. Al likes an outsider called Who’sTheDaddy who hasn’t run for over 200 days and is causing a bit of a rumpus as he parades around. He stays on nicely into second at a tasty 20/1 each way.
If you want a main meal it’s the Model T way of anything you like, as long as it’s burger and chips, although I am surprised to find a stall selling fresh fruit. To a racecourse-hardened cynic, this is an oasis in a desert of mediocrity and I opt for a bowl of mixed berries. I am intrigued by the sign that offers “Chesse and Pineapple” in a modern twist on a 70s classic, combining board games and exotic fruit, but despite the abundance of horses there are no bishops or castles to be seen. I’m not sure it will catch on.
We head for the taxis and secure a Ford Galaxy with a spitting image of ex-England rugby prop Phil Vickery in the drivers seat. I have to ask, and he confirms that he is indeed the younger and better-looking version without the cauliflower ears. Liam and Al call him “Drive” in their weird Bristolian ways, like you might call a hairdresser “Cut” or a racehorse “Run”. He drops us outside a bar and, sheep-like, we head inside. Perhaps “Drive” gets commission for dropping gormless punters outside?
We have a big discussion on whether racing is crooked. I could produce a couple of prime examples from this evening where I felt the jockeys made some odd choices in their quest for victory. Without naming names, in the 4th race one drove his mount right handed into the scrimmage when a left handed smack, or even hands and heels to keep it straight may have produced a 33/1 winner. Yes, I am talking out of my pocket. Later, an apprentice successfully manoeuvred his mount from a promising position on the home bend to a hopeless one by the furlong pole. Neither incident was investigated by the stewards, and nor would I have expected them to have been. Angry jockeys could rightly question whether I have tried to steer an animal at 40mph in a constantly shifting sea of others, but I feel that would be missing the point. It is not prevalent, but it does happen, and the Disciplinary Notices on the BHA website make for interesting reading.
Let me deal with this directly:- I do not believe all British racing to be ‘straight’. In other words, I do not think all horses are put in the best position to win races all the time. But, and this is the unusual thing, it doesn’t bother me that much. Part of the initiative test for me is to spot the potentially dubious races. If I back a favourite that isn’t run on it’s merits, I think that will be counterbalanced in the long run by ‘accidentally’ winning on the horses that are. I understand that two wrongs don’t make a right, and that it may sound an ugly proposition to the uninitiated, but I would argue it’s not that far removed from any other area of life.
In my previous life I got very disillusioned that none of the numbers in a set of accounts were correct, and yet plenty of people play the stock market based on financial data that is, if I’m being blunt, entirely wrong. Many of us own houses (partly) without really knowing whether that’s a good investment or not. I put it to you that most of our decisions in life are made with incomplete knowledge, and the game is to beat the system without even necessarily knowing the various injustices that we are fighting against.
Perhaps that sounds defeatist, but I believe it to also be realistic. Most people gamble enormous sums on property or pensions with very incomplete and biased information, yet would run a mile from putting a fiver on a horse race where some might be trying more than others. Can anybody truly say they found a situation where they had perfect information? Surely that is a luxury only afforded to professional ‘chesse’ players. I just try to do the best I can with imperfect information. And this evening, I haven’t done very well.
A mini pub crawl ensues, passing Clinton Cards which surely has no right to exist in the harsh reality of the modern trading environment, a bit like Bath racecourse perhaps, but both cling on stubbornly in the face of mounting pressure. We finish up in the Be At One Bar by the station. It’s packed with young ladies and frankly not very many young men. Perhaps that’s because blokes are reticent to pay £9 for a swanky cocktail twirled by a tattooed barman? We are confused by the choice, intimidated by the gender bias and deafened by the music, so shuffle outside like a bunch of middle-aged men, but if you are out for the evening and have a spare £300 to get a round in, you could certainly choose a worse venue. I bid Al and Liam farewell and head for the station hoping that the trains are kinder on the way home, and they are.