Three blokes at The Oaks
Steve proffers today's Racing Post. Next to the Daily Naps competition and just below the Ripon Top Draw info (esoteric reading) is an advert for the Punters' Package - The Oaks at Epsom Downs. Nick, Steve and I are toying with the idea of a day at the races, if not a night at the opera.
The day has all the hallmarks of a cracking day out. Nevertheless, we are on the horns of a dilemma. The 2002 World Cup is moving into full Japanese swing and England are due to play Argentina at the Sapiro Dome on the very day of the Oaks meeting. The punter's package includes entrance, beer vouchers, food tokens (two very persuasive arguments), a bet at the Tote, and free RP and racecard, fondue set and cuddly toy all for the knock down price of £15. The small print is even juicier. "Giant diamond vision screen showing uninterrupted coverage of England v Argentina before racing starts." It's a Noon kick-off and the first race has been put back 40 minutes to accommodate this rival sporting attraction on the other side of the globe. Enlightenment at last! We are up for it and Steve takes himself off to acquire the said package.
It's an early start for me from the leafy byeways on the other side of London and I end up catching my normal work train. I have the advantage of being in civvies and I feel smug about it as I check out the commuters. They are a breed apart, and today I feel a couple of notches up the evolutionary ladder. Now boarding at platform 5 are the Hemel Menopausal Maidens, a gaggle of 5 or 6 stony-faced middle-aged women gossiping and moaning and criticising whilst caking make-up to their craggy features.
In front of me sits a dead ringer for Richard Pitman. Honestly, I do a double-take whenever I see him and have to restrain myself from asking how it felt when Red Rum robbed him and Crisp of the 1974 Grand National. Today, he's even wearing a Pitman-esque Navy blazer with brass buttons and a pair of grey flannels. He's probably more rotund than our TV race-day host, but he sports the same over-size glasses, balding head and signet ring on the little finger. He's accompanied by a youth with a case of bad body language. Looky-likey turns to the youth and in a voice far more plummy than the real thing, says,
“So what lessons are you missing out on this morning Robert? Damn shame. Loved school m'self. Golly yes.”
The youth does the full Kevin Teenager act, wriggling in his seat, pulling a face, mumbling a vowel-less grunt and burying his face in Skateboard Stunts for C…. magazine (couldn't see the last word).
Nick and Steve jump on at Clapham Junction as I'm polishing off a Burger King brekkie. They wouldn't expect anything less. I've managed to scribble down this week's fantasy cricket scores in between tearing lumps out of a bacon and sausage bap. The scores easily provide diversionary conversation until we hit Tattenham Corner. It's still early season and despite Steve's blistering start in the competition, we all still think we can win. The idyll of early season optimism. Sometimes it's all we have to cling to.
The grand old Epsom Downs are sheathed in low cloud. A hint of drizzle, rather than the answer (my friend), is blowing in the wind. The route from the station to the main entrance takes us past the 5f sprint start on a spur off the main track. There is a considerable drop down to the winning post from here and the famous sweep of Tattenham Corner is really obvious too.
This course has traditionally posed a serious challenge to the thoroughbred who is asked to run over constantly changing gradients across an adverse camber and frequently at a break neck pace. The fact that the World’s best known race is run over such a testing track has caused concern on plenty of occasions since Lord Derby and Lord Bunbury inaugurated the blue ribband in 1780. Henbit won the 1980 Derby in stunning style, but was found to have cracked a canon-bone and tragically never raced again.
Steve is busy explaining the bias of the draw advantage, the location of the freshest piece of ground close to the stands rail and the soft ground.
“Anything with a wide berth here as no chance in tomorrow’s sprint. You need to be factoring in low draws.”
Nick is distracted by something else to be factored in to the day's proceedings.
“Seen this fair? Fantastic. Sorted for later then.”
He's eying up the big wheel and this bizarre spinning cage affair, still being attended to by some dodgy looking mechanics. Steve is halted in full flow.
“Yeah, you need to be against that far rail as early as possible. That sprint is going to be a cracker, but looking at that ground........yer what Jenkins? Hmmmm. I'm not a big fan of these childish rides.”
It takes us ages to get in. The Punter's Package may represent good value, but pompous stewards are not as easily impressed. Our down at heel value tickets do not warrant us entrance through the badge holders' moated, ballustraded, bannered and doric-columned gateway. Instead, we are ushered with gloved hands through a side turnstile, hidden from the view of the main entrance, at the base of the grandstand and past the junk food sellers (behind a door marked 'beware of the tiger', as Douglas Adams would have it.) You get the picture.
We have plenty of time to check out the best view of the track from the Grandstand, recce the best food franchises, and even lodge our placepot selections. Probably most important of all we set up camp in front of one of the two giant screens which will show the footie.
We are sheltering from the interminable drizzle under a temporary marquee where a covers band of Abba-likes are belting out a series of 70's and 80's crowd pleasers. It's just like the Clapham Grand on a Saturday night; only the crowd are more interested and worse dressed.
The atmosphere is building nicely. We've exchanged beer tokens and are well into the second round of widget-smoothflow-no-nonsense-traditional-Irish-cream-ale froth. Whatever, it slips down a treat. All the talk is suddenly of football. The big screen is showing soundless big match build-up snippets and there is a huge roar of approval to a Mohican-ed Beckham interview with 'Dancing Queen' overdubs courtesy of our house band. Appropriate.
We are not the only ones necking frothy beer like there's a run on carbon dioxide. The crowd is building as fast as the TV hype and there are plenty already bladdered. We've got some renditions of 'Vindaloo' emerging from the rowdies at the back, giving 'With A Little Help from My Friends' from the band a serious run for its money.
Close to kick off now and the volume has been cranked up a few notches. I'm experiencing that comfortably heady cocktail of alcohol, anticipation and adrenalin, leaving me tingling and wired. And, by now, pissed. Nick and Steve are the same. They are glowing and we exchange insane grins and battle cries at every new face on the screen. Football may be my third choice sport these days, but there is no denying the sense of occasion that a big World Cup game, with buckets of ancient history and recent controversy, can bring. The game has been set up perfectly by England's stonking and, frankly unexpected 3-0 demolition of the quietly fancied Danes. This is a World Cup of upsets, of turmoil and this is the nation's biggest game for four years.
Epsom has the atmosphere of an intense football mad pub, only we are out doors and there are thousands here. Just before kick-off, the telly does its 'the day the nation stopped for football' slot and we are treated to scenes of crowds up and down the country waiting for the off. Bugger me, there we are! Almost. There's a shot from the air of Epsom Downs with its throng of punters gathered in front of the screens. The place goes wild and the massive cheer is only surpassed by the gritted-teeth call to arms of the kick-off.
We've moved outside to get a better view of the screen, despite the drizzle. It's tense stuff. England look composed with no early scares. But the sound is atrocious. No one can here Motty's patronizing alliterations and pointless observations. Someone eventually finds the remote control, but the commentary is drowned out by boos every time Simeone, who got Beckham sent off in ’98, is within spitting distance of the ball.
Beers are still slipping down and maybe that's to blame, but to my cynical old eyes, England seem to be making a fist of it. They are taking the game to the opponents and all playing well. Sinclair is inspired down the left flank, and there goes Danny Mills with some intelligent runs down the right, putting in some decent crosses. Even Heskey fizzes a breathtaking volley passed the oppo's upright.
I'm at the bar ordering refills when Beckham threads the ball through to Owen on the edge of the box. He's on a jinking run across the goal-face inside the box and his dancing feet do everything asked of them. The defenders can't resist and are suckered in to the challenge. A little nibble at Owen's feet is enough to precipitate a crashing fall and a penalty to the boys in red. I'm half way through collecting the beers, but the World, even drinking, stops for a few moments. Beckham, looking lost in this massive indoor stadium, tries to collect himself. He's as nervous as hell, I can feel him shaking. But at least he's taken the Captain's responsibility. He steps up to the ball as I step up to the front. It's a crap penalty, down the centre of the goal and at a nice height for the keeper as Big Ron is probably saying somewhere. But it doesn't matter ‘cos the Keeper is infact sprawling away to the left chomping turf. The place goes bananas. Fantastic stuff. By the time I've collected the ale and picked my way through a few more dancing feet, it's half time. Celebration time. Time to relive the moment with the boys.
I get a text message from Hughesy who's somewhere in deepest New Cross with Stu and a few of the other boys from the office.
"TAKE THAT BECKHAM BOMB AND HAVE SOME MORE ARGEY BARGEY. HEYHEY!"
I think he's happy. This is not the moment to consider the profound effect that text messaging is having on our communication skills.
“For God's sake, I hope they don't come out and play like pansies in the second half”, implores Nick. “You know like England do. Time after time, we try to sit back on a lead and defend deeper and deeper. We invite the opposition on to us and think we can play like the Italians do. We can't defend like that. It's not our natural game.”
Agreement all round.
“And look at the way we ran the game in the 1st half. We should be looking to make the game safe, but I bet we end up sitting on it and giving everyone heart failure”, adds Steve.
Never was a truer word spoken. A few glimmers apart, we watch a nerve wracking, tortuous 45 minutes of grim football. To be honest, Argentina never came close to scoring and we heartily cheer their increasingly desperate substitutions. The final whistle is greeted with an almighty roar. The euphoria of Beckham's goal is still fresh and we are intoxicated. The goal cements his reputation and completes a neat circle of rehabilitation after his sending-off exactly 4 years ago.
We've all got those beaming faces and cheeky expressions that say:
“Well that was ace. What next?”
Well, next is the Princess Elizabeth Stakes, Class A (listed) 1m ½ f. Steve has no trouble switching his attention and ploughs into the RP with the voracious appetite of a man on half rations. Me and Nick are a bit more circumspect. I'm still wrapped in an indulgent wallow, so the hustle and bustle of the ring doesn't appeal as much. And I don't get an adrenalin-fuelled rush of excitement when the 6 declared beasts crash out of the gates on the far side of the track. I think I'm suffering adrenalin deficiency. All my reserves have been used up during the game. My body is going,
“Sorry, Dave, but me and the other glands have had about enough. You'll have to wait a while and watch the next couple of races with an air of detached cool and academic observation.”
Which is what I do.
But Steve doesn't. He's on Kootenay. She's a soft ground specialist and lands the Princess Elizabeth easily (4 lengths) at a useful 11/4 from an under-performing Golden Silca. It's a top start, Steve has played the soft ground card to perfection and he’s well set for the afternoon. Kootenay led from flag to post and absolutely revelled in the conditions.
The Coronation Cup is up next. The meeting's Derby for older horses. This is a good race and I'm coming out of my torpor. I'm on Storming Home who almost, but not quite, does. One for later in the season maybe. The soft ground is causing all sorts of grief and the races seems to be about getting to the Stands rail off the camber at the final bend. Tactical manoeuvers to get the best out of a strip of better ground in front of the corporate boxes seems to be deciding some of the races. The German raider Boreal wins in good style at 4/1, with a healthy string of top performers in his wake. All Conquering Godolphin's Kutub, sent off favourite, trails in a desolate last.
Time for more refreshment before the Oaks. Chicken baguettes do the job nicely, as we shelter from the drizzle inside. Everyone else has had the same idea and we can't get to the rammed bar. This is no barrier to our lead minesweeper though. With that devilish look in his eye and employing silky skills first seen when mopping up discarded chicken and chips at the Great British Beer Festival, Steve’s rounded up three abandoned pints of fizzy lager. Way to go! Nick's laughing is head off at the bare-arsed cheek of it. Steve's grinning too, but indignant.
“Well if they can't be arsed to look after their ale, they deserve to lose it!”
I've been studying the Oaks a bit. Checking the form against the classic trials earlier in the Spring, some of which I'd seen on the telly and I’m watching the market. I've had a little ant-post bet on Aiden O'Brien's Quarter Moon, so has Steve. But I'm also looking at two outsiders who came through earlier races with credit: Snowflake and Spinette. There's a question mark against them over the state of the ground, but that's reflected in the price. I have a little dip. We go down to the rail for this race.
The soft ground seems to mess them up again, as what looks like a strong Oaks, in terms of the quality on offer, becomes more of a slog through the testing ground. It's Kazzia, under a strong ride from Frankie Dettori, who burns off her nearest rivals, most notably the well-touted Islington who appears to hate the cloying conditions. Quarter Moon comes late to give Frankie a fright, getting her nose right up Kazzia's hindquarters, and finishing with a bullet. A sight for these sore eyes at least. But the post comes too soon and Kazzia lands an impressive 1,000 guineas/Oaks Classic double. My outsiders prove to be just that in this mire - 10th and last.
There's some Class C 3-y-o handicap next, which doesn't trouble me too much. Keiron Fallon romps home on Lingo against the stands rail. We are back in the grandstand bar admiring a craftsman about his business. Steve is coming back to our perch with full cans of unopened group 1 bitter, liberated from an array of careless owners. It's a top performance. We polish off the round and with encouragement from Nick and Steve, I go off in search of replenishments. But it's no good. I don't have Steve's panache. I'm loitering around tables, trying to check out who might be leaving an untended beer and after a few ums and aahs, I return empty handed. Nick is scathing of my efforts. Rightly so. And Steve is even more forthright.
“Diffident bastard”, or some such he mutters as he strolls, brazenly around the bar, shamelessly lifting fresh cans of John Smith's as if he's doing the cleaning up at the end of the night.
Dumaran, another soft ground specialist takes the next handicap. I'm beyond caring by now. My phone rattles a merry tune. It's Stu, trolleyed and lairy, tearing up some south London pub.
“Dave, Dave. Fuckin' hell, Dave. Mate. Never in my life, not ever in my living memory, have we beaten them bastards. But today we did. We fuckin' did it. We done ‘em!”
His voice is cracking with emotion, or too much shouting. Not sure which.
“What a day. Fuckin' give that ponce Beckham his due. He did it today. Have any winners yet you old bastard....?”
But he's already long gone before I can answer. The phone has probably disappeared down the toilet, or down the barmaid's front.... I dread to think. The World Cup is big event for the boys in the office. No one has seen them since the middle of May.
Next up, the 7f Surrey Stakes. I've had an adventurous exacta on red-hot Red Liaison with Oases, whom I note is jockeyed by Pat Smullen, resplendent in the fine powder blue colours of Gallagher Equine. Odds-on Red Liason screams home by 2 ½ lengths and I'm cheering on the blue of Oases into second. Yowzer! A penultimate race saver. Fav and 2nd fav in an exacta won't make me rich, but I'm already working out how many stakes I'll recover as go to see those lovely ladies in red.
Nick and Steve see the replays and realise I've been cheering on the wrong bleedin’ nag. Terfel at 6/1 whose jockey also sports natty blue silks, has taken 2nd spot by half a length. The ladies cast me sympathetic smiles as they hand back my Tote slip.
“Sorry darlin’, this is a looosin’ tecket.” They say, each in Geordie accents.
I try three windows before I accept that it's not their mistake. It's mine. I must cut a forlorn figure as I head back to the bar to be received by Nick and Steve's howling laughter. Steve decides it's worth another beer. But he's getting reckless now. He saunters up to a table populated with punters checking out the replay of the last race on a nearby telly. The artful dodger edges in, spots a tinny and casual as you like picks it up. Only his eagle eyed-neighbour has rumbled him and takes it from our intrepid hero's grasp.
“Oh, sorry”, says Steve, nice as pie. “I thought that was mine.”
So then he stands there for a few more minutes bold as brass, with me and Nick roaring abuse from two tables away. Steve’s passing the time of day with the bloke he’s just tried to rob.
“Thought Kinane should have pressed the button earlier.”
“Red Liason won the German 1000 Guineas I see.”
“Good effort from Terfel, stepping up.”
Balls of steel. Cheek of iron. He returns beerless but unscathed. Lucky he didn't get a twatting.
It's the lucky last. A 7f handicap is as lucky as can be. Nick lumps on Johnny Ebeneezer who pulls out a scintillating display to take the race by the scruff of the neck and stamp his presence all over the opposition from 1f out. He eases home a comfortable 3 lengths clear and Nick's delighted. Rightly so, what a way to finish. He's ended up clear in profit after a sparkling day out. Strains of ‘E’s are good, e’s are good. He’s Ebeneezer Goode’ can be heard soaring above a soggy Epsom as we head for the station.
Nick persuades us to take in the funfair. I swear this has been in his mind all day, and even more so now that there is money burning a hole in his pocket. Steve is reluctant. I don't think he likes these harum-scarum activities. We take in a couple of the rides, waving at Steve from our rocket ship swooping over the Downs and from the roller coaster giving spanking views across the racecourse. Steve gives us one of those patronizing 'grow up children' smiles and looks longingly at the train station.
Next, Nick wants to investigate the contents of his stomach on that death-trap ride we saw earlier which involves being strapped to the side of a circular cage and being spun round at a million miles an hour whilst performing geometric miracles on a revolving axis. Not for me thanks. I prefer to fill my stomach rather than empty it. Think I'll have a large hot dog.
In my absence, Nick has dismounted, claiming to have enjoyed the experience and is squaring up to a punch bag. He takes a good old look, a couple of paces back and unleashes a mighty swing. Which misses the bag completely and registers a big, fat zilch. Ha. Ha. My turn. Same scenario. I'm giving the bag my best evils, focusing on the point of impact. I proceed to swing with precision and efficiency, but catch only the very outlying stitches of the bag and register but a flicker on the Richter scale. Steve, seeking to make up for his jessie-like behaviour on the rides, condemns with a scowl over the top of his spectacles and right hooks the leather ball into next week. Easy as you like.
There's till time for one more diversion. We have to change trains at East Croydon. So it only makes sense to see how the town rates on the curry stakes. There's a long old hike down the main drag to find a Balti House, but we are rewarded with a fine meal, and attended to by an array of superior staff. I think we are even civil to them despite the trials of the day.
I get home late. I'm shattered. But there's a light on. Don't understand. I open the door and have to pick my way over the debris of empty wine bottles, scrapings of soft French cheese and crusts of bread. Mrs A is entertaining her friend Julie who is staying over.
"Wasn't Danny Mills an absolute star today. Do you think we can really forgive Beckham everything? Has Sinclair got a future? Heskey's a donkey......."
Julie's a Leeds fan and hadn't had anyone sensible to talk to about the game all day. She was getting no joy out of Mrs A. So the late night became later. I open my bag and crack open one of the five cans of lager Steve has re-distributed........