Racing: Fox-hunting and the mating

Andy Martin infiltrates the feudal front on field manoeuvres
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The Independent Online
Point-to-point? Point-to-pointless more like. Except there is a point; the horses running a couple of circuits around a ploughed field are just a front for the local hunt brigade. The races over three miles are a simulated pursuit. At Horseheath, in Cambridgeshire, on Saturday the unspeakable were out in force, only the inedible were missing. And the anti-hunt sabs.

A point acknowledged by the couple of amiable and bored bobbies wandering about on a bleak afternoon without very much to do. ``We might have expected to see some of the people opposed to country sport this afternoon, but they're down at Fairmile, more's the pity. We won't be seeing Swampy and Animal here. No, the best we can hope for is a few car break-ins.''

I had to have a word with them since they were keeping a weary eye on me - other than them I was the only human being for miles around without a pair of green wellies, waxed jacket, country cap and extremely ruddy cheeks. Men and women alike. Even the kids - like children brought up in some fanatical religious sect, were wearing exactly the same clobber as their parents. The only permissible alternative was a red frock jacket and a hunting horn.

For eager converts, ``The Pukka Clothing Company'' was selling ``county gear'' and jodhpurs next to the beer tent. A placard outside the British Field Sports Society marquee nearby warned of frightful perils ahead; ``1997 - New MPs, New Parliament, New threats to country sports. You can help!'' and I feared I already had helped by coughing up pounds 10 to park my car to finance some pompous sadist on a horse.

In the darkest recesses of East Anglia, feudalism is not yet dead. Point- to-point is an opportunity for several thousand nobs and snobs to mingle with rustic peasant types. It is a hideous grinning comedy of manners, with the lords and masters patronising and looking down on the masses and the yokels guilefully sucking up to the gentry, all jockeying for advantage going over the social fences. The racing and betting is just a pretext. Even the row of bookies looked underemployed. ``No one puts down any big bets,'' groaned Sid of Chelmsford. There was serious money in the offing, but very little of it passed through Sid's hands.

The whole thing is a narcissistic exercise in primping and pimping. For beyond the smell of horse sweat and the promise of blood and gore to come, amid the hampers in the backs of Range Rovers and bottles of Burgundy on the walnut tables of Silver Ghosts, and, despite the paralysing cold, there was the powerful sense of a fertility dance in full swing. I bumped into Ted, an old college acquaintance, also a sceptic but with solid rural credentials. ``A mating ritual, pure and simple,'' is how he explained point-to-point.

``Nothing to do with horses,'' he said. ``No one here gives a toss about horses.'' He hauled me off to one side, probably embarrassed to be seen talking to someone in a pair of Timberlands. ``Look at me - I can't even ride. Not horses anyway.'' He then went off in to a prolonged metaphor involving mounts, studs, stallions and fillies that wouldn't have been out of place in a Jilly Cooper novel. Ted had a sharp eye for form. ``See it from our point of view, old lad,'' he said, wrapping a sympathetic arm round my shoulder. ``It's all to do with breeding. You have to keep the bloodline pure. You can't have the oiks marrying in, now can you?''

Personally, I think the point-to-pointing gene pool could do with a good shake up. The horse face was everywhere, and not just on the horses. Ted went off to manoeuvre for an invite to a party being given by Lord Vestey. Edmund Vestey - the butcher and local master of hounds, I think, who owns a lot of land in these parts - stood out not so much for his bowler hat, but for the almost entirely purple beacon of a face under it. Having had so much to do with raw meat over the ages he has come to resemble a slab of steak.

Ken Williams, a first-time rider, caused an upset by winning the last race on Glenbricken. Particularly upset were those mugs who put their money on the favourite, Buckshot. The edited highlights of one remark I overheard among the punting hoi polloi was: ``**** the ****ing **** out of that ****ing **** of a nag!''

But Williams was a popular winner among the Vesteys and the trans-Vesteys. ``This is a dream come true,'' he said in his winner's speech, ``just to ride here - let alone win as well. And thanks for supporting the hunt.''

I wasn't, but I let that pass. And it didn't surprise me that Greig Middleton, Stockbrockers, were one of the sponsors of the event and out touting for custom at Horseheath. But what I want to know is: what the hell was Barclays Bank (of Haverhill) doing bank-rolling the races? Presumably some of the overdraft charges they slap on the urban proletariat of Haverhill are going straight in to the jodhpurs of the fox-hunting classes. Medieval style taxation all over again. A boycott would be in order here, methinks.

And it is surely a gross blunder on the part of the Racing Channel to get itself involved in broadcasting point-to-points. Apart from the fact that the unwatchable in pursuit of their own self-interest is a total yawn and turn-off, it is only helping to support the archaic and sanguinary habits of a few squires and toffs. Let Lord Vestey sell a few more sausages.