A long way from Ascot

If you want to see horseracing without the toffs and top hats, head to Ireland, where the thrills are shared by all, and even the bookmakers are thought of as friends. Photographs by Bruce Gilden. Words by Anthony Cronin
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are more racecourses per head of population in Ireland than in any other country in the world. One or two, like Leopardstown or the Curragh, are well known to British television viewers. Others nestle, almost secretively, amid rolling pasture, bog or mountain. Many lie at the edges of small towns, silent green spaces waiting to burst into animation and noise four or five times a year.

Horses have been raced on some of them, such as the course at Bellewstown, in pastoral County Meath, since prehistoric times. Others, like one of my own favourites, Ballinrobe, in rugged Mayo, go back to the era when local landowners ran their horses in heats and wagered each other into bankruptcy. It was from humble Ballinrobe that the politician George Henry Moore - father of George Moore, the author of Esther Waters - sent his "certainties" over to compete at Goodwood and Liverpool, helping his tenants through hard times with what he took from the English bookmakers when they won.

You can combine a seaside holiday with a week's racing at tracks like Tramore. Other venues, like Kilbeggan, would be far inland, if anything were "far" in Ireland - a small country with good, Europe-subsidised roads. The patrons of provincial racecourses usually come from the local community, plus a few regulars who seem to spend all their time travelling from one race meeting to another. If you had the time and the inclination, you could spend a happy few weeks doing this, enjoying the scenic variety as well as the variety of local characters on offer at Tramore and Wexford, Limerick, Tipperary and Roscommon. Besides the free-flowing drink, your main danger would probably be acting on the free-flowing tips forced on you day and night. I have often thought of doing a tour like this myself but, somehow or other, less important things always supervened.

The most punishing part of your itinerary would undoubtedly be the ebullient, week-long festivals such as those held in Galway, Killarney, Tralee and Listowel, where crowded hotel bars and discos offer what is supposed to be relaxation from the strain of winning or losing money. But you could recuperate at the quieter venues which make few demands other than on the pockets of the punters. Any of these racecourses would remind you of the curious time- defying quality of Ireland, a modern country, many of whose in- habitants seem to have stepped straight from another era; a place where people manage to combine a welcoming openness with the sort of shrewdness and dubiety about the outside world that have been characteristic of country people through the ages.

Captions: Galway Race Week

"The city of the tribes", Galway is Ireland's western-most city, and it plays host to two famous summer gatherings, the Arts Festival and Galway Race Week. Almost as soon as Irish people of a certain disposition have ceased asking each other, "Are you going to Cheltenham?" they begin to ask, "Are you going to Galway?" The racecourse at Ballybritt, just outside the city, is set among stone walls and little hills, with a view of the famous Twelve Pins of Connemara in the distance. Since the meeting takes place at the end of July, when the hay is saved and the harvest ripening, the farming community is in jovial mood and many make Galway their annual holiday. The races go on all week, Monday to Saturday, so if you are betting or drinking or both - and why would you go to Galway if you weren't doing either or both? - it requires stamina and resolution to see it out.

Flappers

In rural Irish parlance, flappers are not Twenties dancing girls, but race meetings not covered by the Irish Turf Club's rules and regulations. Flappers are usually run in places formerly too poor to have a proper racecourse - sometimes in a big field where the course is marked out by flags; sometimes on one of Ireland's innumerable smooth, wide strands. In the days when communications were more difficult, many horses would run under false names, and were, in fact, well-known performers on proper tracks whose fate was to be taken round the flapper meetings towards the end of their racing days, in the hope of landing a few gambles. Although less frequent a practice than it once was, this can still happen; and many of the stories attached to flapper meetings concern the outcomes of such gambles and the disguises adopted. The bar at these meetings is usually a large tent, and the jockeys local lads who may dream of one day riding a Derby winner. Of course, according to the rule book, riding at a flapper meeting is supposed to disqualify jockeys from being apprenticed under rules; but it has been known to happen.

Listowel

Like Galway, Listowel is an exponent of the sort of cultural diversity that makes present-day Ireland such an intriguing country. A charming little town of many pubs - including one owned by the celebrated playwright, philosopher and raconteur John B Keane - Listowel is on the coastal plain of North Kerry, in an otherwise mountainous county its inhabitants like to call "The Kingdom". It is home not only to a race week but to Listowel Writer's Week, an ebullient gathering of a very different sport, when a large proportion of Ireland's standing army of poets and writers descend, supposedly to discuss their craft. The racecourse is a small jewel, like a fair green, adjacent to the centre of the town. Race week takes place in the autumn and, like many Irish provincial meetings, is a mixture of jumping and flat racing. If you refuse to get involved in the all-night card games, it is a good deal less wearing than Galway, and if you are lucky enough to get billeted in the Listowel Arms, whose rear windows look out on the course, you can almost enjoy the fun from your hotel bedroom.

Bookmakers

The idea that the bookmakers are regarded as some sort of enemy by punters is soon dispelled on an Irish racecourse. Here, they are thought of in the same way as, say, an opponent in a friendly game of cards. In fact, if the French system were to be adopted in Ireland, and the bookmakers ceased to grace the racecourses, most punters would miss the banter, noise and excitement that the constant shouting of the odds creates. Racing for country people is a visiting carnival which is meant to bring some of the bustle and bluster, turmoil and commotion of the outside world to the locality for a day or two.

Come one, come all

Provincial Irish race meetings are democratic places. There are no private boxes and no members' enclosures. If you are rich and think you should have special facilities, you are in the wrong place. What is on offer here is a cross-section of humanity: the small-town solicitor, the small-businessman, the priest, the chap in computers, the farmer and his wife and children. They are all having a day out and they all, for the moment, share the same preoccupation: the search for the winner of "the next" or, if not the next, the one after. "Ireland, still in many ways a stubbornly rural country, has a more intimate relationship with horseracing than other, more urbanised places. Many farmers keep a thoroughbred mare or two for breeding purposes, or live within neighbourly distance of someone who trains a few horses. Owners' syndicates are as common as blackberries in a hot Westmeath August, so large numbers of people own or have owned a leg or two of a horse. An Irish provincial meeting has, therefore, proportionately more connoisseurs and experts than you might expect. The downside for the visitor is the tantalising number of tips on offer. But it is essential to remember that there can be more than one tip for any one race, and that the bookmakers you can hear merrily shouting odds are still in business. n

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