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A day at the races

Thursday, July 24, 2014
London Calling
Stable hands walk racehorses through the paddocks in wet conditions ahead of a race at the Santa Rosa Park race club in Arima. PHOTO: JOSHUA SURTEES

“This is ‘the track,’ isn’t it, rather than ‘the races’?” my friend says, surveying the Santa Rosa Park race club in Arima. “Like when a dad gets home from a night shift at the factory and says to his wife, ‘I’m going down to the track. I don’t know when I’ll be back.” 


Images of whisky-soaked Charles Bukowski novels come flooding back—the broke writer heading to the track in LA to win a few hundred bucks to pay his rent or debts—a seedy underworld of illegal bookmakers who’ll take your car until you pay up. Bukowski’s characters studied the form guide before placing bets, but when we look at the numbers and weights, it’s completely incomprehensible. 


I ask a man what the letters mean and he says it indicates whether the horse is wearing a visor, blinkers or has its tongue tied. “Ahhh!” I say, as though this piece of information will make any difference to my choice of horses.


I’m betting on names alone and I’ve already spotted a certain winner in the next race, Black Genius. The laughing woman at the kiosk tells me the odds on Black Genius are 25-1 and rolls her eyes, trying to dissuade me. But I will not be dissuaded. I’m determined to lose at least $100 here today. 


A $20 deficit is promptly registered in my wallet as Black Genius trots in last, by some distance. 


I blame the ground. The rain is relentless and the sand is sodden. The scoreboard describes the going as “sloppy turf,” a suitable name for a Bukowski short story. 


Rain rolls in from the hills, which are visible one moment, obscured with cloud the next. On our way here we drove straight past the course without seeing it, such was the intensity of the deluge. I’d left Port-of-Spain in a maxi from City Gate and the John Lennon song Imagine had come on the radio. Instinctively I’d rewritten the words of the chorus in my head: “You may sa-aa-y I’m Arima. But I’m not the only one.” I was pleased with it and thought about how best to employ it, but I was distracted by a gentleman talking to me. 


The further east you go from town, the friendlier people are, I find. The same applies to south. 


“You know where you’re going after you get to the maxi stand?” the man asks me, making sure I don’t get lost. I tell him my friend is meeting me there. 


In the event, she is delayed and I wait by the Dial admiring the handsome Arima folk doing their Saturday shopping. People ask me directions. When I tell them I’m from London they smile. 


I listen to the Syrians outside their clothes shop, speaking Arabic. I think about the Syrian Consul, a few doors down, with his poster of Bashar al-Assad on the wall. 


I wonder if the racecourse will be like Ascot or Epsom, but it’s more like the track my aunt once took me to in Paris, where the punters were unshaven but at least, potentially, bathed. 


In Arima, the locals are armed with pens and programmes. Televisions inside the stand show races from Saratoga, New York and Woodbine, Toronto, and people whoop and cheer. I wonder if, like at the World Cup, people are changing allegiance, minute by minute, as a new next horse takes the lead. 


We wander over to the paddock. The horses look reasonably fit, the jockeys thin, the trainers fat. One trainer, who seems to have three horses in each race, hands his business card to my friend. It has a picture of an aggressive-looking hawk and describes him as an insurance adviser. I wonder if it’s the jockeys or horses that command the higher insurance premiums. 


We spot a mark in the same place on each horse’s rear, where the whip lands. 


A watery sun peeps through and a double rainbow appears. Perhaps there’s a pot of gold waiting at the end? We see a sign written on a chalkboard, “Oh God be gracious and bless us today. Amen.” Surely the gods are with us? But no. The oddly named Slewjero, our last bet of the day, is pipped at the post. 


As we leave, my friend tells me her fiancé’s father in Ireland was a racehorse trainer but was paralysed in a fall. Goodness, I think, what an insensitive choice of activity I’ve chosen for this day out. 


To cap off the best of British luck I seem to have brought, we discover our car battery is dead, as we left the lights on. The heavens open again and we fear nobody will stop to help. but two East Indian brothers, car lovers, happily take out the battery of their vintage Ford and get us going again, while I shield them with two umbrellas. We thank them and promise we will return to buy them drinks at the next race meet. 


“It’s only good karma,” my friend says. And we’re off.


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