Having enjoyed watching the Kentucky Derby a few days ago, I was reminded of that miserable day some years ago when I attended my first Irish Derby at a racecourse some miles west of Dublin. What follows is a column I wrote for the Chattanooga Times Free Press the following week.
It was my first time to watch the Irish Derby and by the time High Chaparral had swept across the finish line going away to win the race, I was shivering in my boots.
Or maybe I should say me boots. At any rate, a chilling wind was blowing a steady rain in a horizontal fashion across Curragh Racecourse, soaking man and beast to the skin.
The Irish call it a soft, fine day. I call it miserable.
Almost everything in sight was painted grey: the sky, the concrete stands, the rows of soggy benches. Only the green turf of the course and the multicolored umbrellas sheltering the 50-odd bookmakers added the slightest hint of color to the panorama viewed by the 20,000 racing fans willing to endure the unpleasant weather.
My host for the weekend, Irish recording artist Michael English, had suggested that a coat and tie was the proper attire for the occasion. So there we were, English in his black suit and I in my blue blazer and slacks, contending with the elements while desperately trying to find a winning horse to “back.”
You see, in Ireland, you “back” a horse by placing a wager on it. In fact, the whole betting scheme is interesting.
The racing fan at an Irish track has two options. He can place a bet at the paramutuel windows just as we do at American tracks. Or he can bet with one of the many bookies who post their own odds for each race.
The individual bookmakers offer different betting combinations, but all involve win and place bets. There is no show betting.
The Derby (pronounced “Darby”) was sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, Inc., and offered a 750,000 Euro purse to the winner. Nine horses were entered in this year’s race.
English had taken me the night before to his favorite pub in Castledermot, where he lives. The town is about 20 miles from The Curragh, and many of the patrons of the bar are savvy racing fans.
One elderly gentleman, who had already sampled several of the pub’s beverages, offered us a “tip.” The only problem was that I couldn’t decipher the thick Irish accent slurred somewhat by the effects of the barley.
“He said to back High Chaparral,” English translated with a grin. Several friends nodded enthusiastically and noted that this man had won 2,000 Euros by backing a winning exacta the week before and must be recognized as an expert.
I should have listened to him.
Instead, English (not to be confused with the American singer with the same name) and I discovered that none of the bookmakers would give any odds on the horse at all because he was such an overwhelming favorite.
Sure, we could have bet with the track and gotten one-to-four odds, but we decided to bet with a bookie who was posting odds on the horse finishing second. An Irish horse named Ballingarry looked good at 12-1, so we each handed over 5 euros.
The start of the one mile, 4 furlong race was visible only on the giant closed circuit screens set up in front of the stands. At one point, the horses disappeared behind a grassy knoll before starting up a slight incline. Then it was down the hill and on toward the finish.
Ballingarry was second heading into the last furlong. High Chaparral was coming on strong and was obviously the best horse in the race. But what did we care? We could almost savor our 65 Euros because our horse was in second place.
Suddenly a jockey wearing pink came up to challenge. Sholokhov, this unbelievable 200-to-1shot, pulled even with Ballingarry and nipped him by a nose in a photo finish.
It was a special moment, I’m sure, for trainer Aiden O’Brien, whose horses finished 1-2-3. It was less than special for Michael and me.
English was an engaging and magnanimous host, and I had a fabulous weekend.
But it’s really tough to lose a wager in a driving rain to a jockey wearing pink and riding a 200-to-1 nag.