Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lacken Strand Races

On Sunday afternoon we drove to the nearby village of Lacken for their annual horse races. The races are held on the beach (a.k.a. ‘strand’ in Ireland), a wide stretch of sand between the green hills that edge the ocean. It was one of the most exciting, beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. When I was young I didn’t have much of a horse phase the way many girls do, but I certainly loved seeing The Black Stallion and reading Black Beauty and seeing a dozen horses thunder down the beach, framed by the horizon of cliffs and ocean, left me breathless. The boys were spellbound. David was in a photo-frenzy (a painting is being started this week). From what little I see in the States, horse racing is from the world of the highly controlled and manufactured and marketed. Racetracks seem like the sporting world’s version of a shopping mall, gambling is depressing, the horses are products of teams of vets, trainers, and p.r. agents, and the horses owners seems to get more attention than the people riding the animals. It tips far more towards regimented than primal on the spectrum. At Lacken Strand, it felt primal. I was looking the wrong way through the telescope and could see horse racing as it used to be, from the perspective of what it’s turned into. There was a gaggle of bookmakers (okay, I have to pause here just to let you know that when Misha visited in April she spent the first day loving Ireland because it had so many shops where one could buy handmade books . . . then it dawned on her what those stores were for) set up around tables in the field next to the beach. Each bookie kept track of odds on a chalkboard and pattered in auctioneer lingo, drawing bettors in. The cars and trailers that brought the jockeys and horses were parked right alongside the cars of the spectators. If you ran back to your car to grab a jacket you’d likely hear a horse kicking the sides of its trailer or see a jockey chatting up a girl while sharing a bag of crisps. The jockeys were young, from age 12 to early 20s, most in their mid-teens. Most were males, but there were a few females in the mix and one young woman of about 14 rode in nearly every one of the day’s 14 races; her jacket was hot pink with black polka dots so she was hard to miss. She rode a different horse in each of the races and she must be one heck of a rider to be able to manage such a feat. The jockeys were dressed in crisp pants that seemed to be made of tyvek for their otherworldly whiteness; their jackets were satin and boldly colored, purple bodice with yellow sleeves or royal blue bodice with white and green striped sleeves. There was no code that dictated that boys dress in muted tones while girls get the bright colors. Everyone got to shine.
The track is laid out in a half-mile loop in the sand, with simple stakes and thin rope cordoning off the spectators from the action. By the next day, after the stakes are removed and the tide rises and falls there will be no trace of the trample of hooves. An ambulance stays parked in the middle of the beach and it got called into action a couple of times. The horses are high strung and the mere act of getting to the starting line seemed dangerous. There are no gates to stuff the horses into for the big start. Instead the horses gather in one general area and scuffle and twist and try desperately just to get the heck out of the scrum, while the jockeys try to keep them under control. When the signal to start the race is given some horses are facing backwards, some jockeys are distracted by the fracas. It’s not a tidy start and some horses never seem to recover, remaining half a track back from the pack for the entire race. Some riders were thrown and there’s a mad rush to get them off the track before the horses come round again. You see parents run like hell across the sand to get to their kids. I have a vision of parents at grade school soccer games rushing to their injured offspring on the field, except the risks seem far greater and the panic is in everyone’s chest.

We stayed for five of the races. There’s about 20 minutes between each race, allowing time for the horses in the coming race to promenade around a ring so that potential bettors can study the options and place bets. There’s a sideshow of activities for kids, so we took our intermissions at the bouncy slide and the face painting booth. Finn introduced himself to the guy working the bouncy castle: “Hi. My name is Finn. I’m new to Ireland.” He left the races painted up as Spiderman. Corin was in line to be painted when the skies opened up and rain chased us to the car. Being the little brother can be lousy sometimes. The races continued in the rain; that seemed fitting.

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