It may surprise you to know that I’m interested in the Grand National, as I’m usually anti events that lead to animals being killed (unless it’s tastefully done). However, today, like most of the nation, I’ll be glued to the telly watching the legendary handicap steeplechase run.
When I was an itsy-bitsy girl, my father had an old Army friend we called Uncle Eli. Every once in a blue moon, he would spend a few days in our family home. His visits were usually preceded and followed by at least ten days of silence from my mother, which may explain why I found time with Uncle Eli so enchanting. I thought his excesses were exotic and exciting. Of course, now I find barely functional alcoholics rather less attractive, but then, a visit with Uncle Eli meant a weekend of good fun.
One year, my father and Eli invited me to join them on one of their usually private jollies. Though I requested advance knowledge of the details (so I could choose my wardrobe wisely), all Eli would tell me was “You’re going to have the time of your life.”
And I did. After a quick stop at the one bar in town which also had a children’s menu, we drove through the gates of Melvin Purvis Raceway. As soon as we got out of the car, my face was stung by the frenzy that surrounded me. Men of all sizes were frantically running about, holding newspapers, cigars and their wallets as they rushed to the windows and then trackside. While my father and Eli chose their bets, I watched the enclosure through my binoculars.
I was initially seduced by the satiny sheen of the jockeys’ silks (I was a child and can be forgiven for this). But soon I was studying the horses. I don’t know how anyone can deny the beauty of the equine beast: the muscular curves of the thighs, the seductive shape of the face, the crowning glory of the crest. One in particular caught my eye: a grey colt with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eyes. I was no expert, of course, but it felt as if that horse was trying to tell me something and I knew what it was.
I immediately ran to the sides of my adult companions. “Eli,” I said, with absolute certainty, “the smart money is on the grey colt, number 27.”
My father tried to shush me, but Eli knelt down and said, “What’s the scoop, scout? You got some insider information?”
I thought of the way that horse had so boldly stared me down and said, “The information is inside me. I’m telling you, I just know it.”
He flipped over the paper he was holding, scanned the page and tutted. “He’s being ridden by a bug boy, doll face. Long shot–95/1. I don’t rate his chances.”
I pulled at my pocketbook, emptied all of my resources into my hand and passed it over to him. “Then use my money,” I said. “Place the bet.”
There must have been something about the tone of my voice or perhaps it was the awkwardness of a grown man being given a child’s life savings, but Eli scurried off and did as he had been told. The three of us then made our way to the rails.
“What’s his name?” I asked as I went up on my tippie-toes to get the best view.
“Butch Dreams Big” came the answer to my query.
Though the race seemed to only last seconds and the horses passed by me so quickly that the entire field was a blur, I knew what I knew.
“A blanket finish!” I heard a spectator shout. I think I was the only one there who was not surprised when the winner was revealed.
Eli immediately began asking me to pick my favourites in other races, but my father intervened. We collected my winnings (which my father pocketed) and walked silently back to the car. Eli left town the next day, and I was never included in one of their outings again.
The fact that my father did not tell my mother about our adventure made clear to me that, despite my newly discovered talent, my life’s meaning would not be found on a racetrack. I have never placed another bet.
The closest I allow myself to come to this forbidden pleasure is watching the Grand National each year. Christopher and I each have a flutter, but the winner gets personal favours instead of monetary rewards. I’m pretty confident about my choice this year, but I shan’t share it. If you’re betting today, please be sensible.
And good luck to the horses and riders. May you all end your day without bullets in your heads.