Forget Epsom. They do it better in Alice

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The Independent Online
RACING is all about hats. On 1 May and 2 June, I put on my Akubra - a genuine wide-brimmed central Australian, made of quality rabbit felt - and took myself off to watch the horses. The two occasions were separated by 32 days, 9,000 miles and a host of attitudes and assumptions, not only about headgear.

The first was at Pioneer Park, Alice Springs. While I probably would have been admitted without my Akubra - Australians are nothing if not broad- minded - I should have felt embarrassed, because nearly everyone else had one. One of the traditions at central Australian outdoor events is the instinctive clutch of the crown at the onset of a gust of wind: real men don't wear chinstraps.

At Epsom, Surrey, on Derby Day mine was the only Akubra that I spotted among the 100,000 racegoers who crowded the downs (free) and the enclosures (overpriced). To be in the swim at Epsom I would have needed a grey topper which, for a few special days in the racing calendar, replaces those brown pork-pie numbers that I never see anyone except trainers wear and assume are sold only in Newmarket and Lambourn.

As for women, there seems a rule that all their hats must be the same colour: on Wednesday this was a rather alarming and horse-scaring puce. The uniformity is grossly unfair to us voyeurs, quite unable to tell our Princess Michaels from our Queen Mums.

I had a good time on both days, but I had the distinct impression that the racing at Alice Springs is better organised than at Epsom.

On Wednesday, nothing truly shameful occurred to compare with the Grand National fiasco, but it was surely against all natural justice that the man responsible for the anguish of Aintree, Captain Brown, should have been allowed to officiate, his bowler hat replaced on this occasion by the regulation topper, though still a size too big. Norman Lamont, watching from the stands in matching headgear, must have reflected bitterly on double standards.

Yet while the races all managed to get under way, it was not always at the appointed time. Some jockeys could not persuade their mounts to go down to the start at anything faster than a crawl. It is puzzling why Derby runners are these days required to canter the entire one- and-a-half-mile course from the stands to the start, whereas before they used to take a handy short cut across the downs.

There were other niggling inefficiencies. We arrived by bus at Tattenham Corner at about 12.30 and wanted to cross the course to the centre. The gates were closed in our faces. 'The Queen's going to be driving by,' explained a jovial policeman. 'You'll have to wait about half an hour.'

It took the royal party only a few minutes to drive past: no need at all to close the gates so early. It is the kind of thing that gives monarchy a bad name.

At Alice Springs, where 1,000 is an average attendance, crossing the course is not a factor, for we all fitted happily into the area around the paddock, thoughtfully shaded against the sun. The 'grandstand' is just four wooden slats to stand on.

Even in matters of technology, where you might think the world's greatest race would have the edge over one of the world's smallest tracks, Alice comes out best. The results of photo-finishes were declared there in a couple of minutes, whereas at Epsom on Wednesday it was nearly 10 minutes before the judges could work out who won the fifth race.

The difficulties of organising a race meeting in Alice Springs are formidable. Summer temperatures can go up to 40C and there is no town of comparable size for 1,000 miles in any direction.

None of this fazes Chris Nolan, the genial course secretary. Occasionally he attracts runners from as far as Adelaide and Darwin, but generally he can sustain his 40 days' racing a year from the horses permanently or temporarily stabled at the track - between 80 and 160 of them, depending on the season.

To make sure the standard remains high, the club buys a supply of thoroughbreds every year from the coast and sells them on to local owners. There are 35 full-time trainers and 18 jockeys.

Prizes are not much lower than at an average English meeting. Even with only 1,000 spectators paying pounds 4 each to go in, the operation can be profitable on the basis of revenue from the tote and bookmakers, who take bets on all other Australian meetings as well as the local one.

If Capt Brown and the other high hats who run British racing want to go and see how the sport should really be organised, I'd be happy to lend them my Akubra.

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