A bookie’s money is only ever on loan

Civilization is drugs, alcohol, engines of war, prostitution, machines and machine slaves, low wages, bad food, bad taste, prisons, reformatories, lunatic asylums, divorce, perversion, brutal sports, suicides, infanticide, cinema, quackery, demagogy, strikes, lockouts, revolutions, putsches, colonization, electric chairs, guillotines, sabotage, floods, famine, disease, gangsters, money barons, horse racing, fashion shows, poodle dogs, chow dogs, Siamese cats, condoms, peccaries, syphilis, gonorrhea, insanity, neuroses, etc., etc.

No, that’s not my opinion – I pilfered it from Henry Miller because I was glad to see that he included horse-racing in his list. (I’m hyphenating it, because my trusted OED says to do so. Picking a dictionary is a little like choosing a religion – you have to keep the faith!)

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There are few outings I like more than a day at the races. At home, where it costs upwards of €30 to just get through the turnstile, it’s an absolute pleasure to walk through the gates of Kincsem Park and pay nothing. Zero. Zilch. Free entry. And to have the place practically to yourself is another bonus … of sorts. Nothing can quite compete with the atmosphere at the Curragh on the day of the Derby or the Christmas festival at Fairyhouse or the Galway races – there, the crowds add to it all. Yet there’s something very attractive about the leisurely pace of Kincsem Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon in April.

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And it doesn’t matter that I don’t know one end of a horse from the other when it comes to spotting form. I fancy myself as being in the know but at the same time I know I’m only codding myself. I bet the minimum 200 ft but can say with some pride that I now have enough Hungarian  to know how to do a reverse forecast… and one even came up! I was well impressed with myself. Mind you, it was the only win I had all day 🙁 but as my mother would say – a bookie’s money is only on loan. It’s a shame that there are no bookies at Kincsem – just a tote… so the winnings will never be massive, but a win is a win is a win.

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Whether  standing by the track or viewing from the stands or even inside looking out from the bar, just being there is enough. And speaking of bars – the bar at Kincsem uses a very nice Bock rosé for its fröccs (spritzer) – cheap at half the price, no expense spared. Yet the place must be losing money hand over fist. But was I complaining? Hell, no!

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It’s a shame to see the old stand no longer in use. And it’s hard to imagine why it was built there in the first place, so far from the track. Perhaps things have changed since the park was in its heyday. I have very little difficulty imagining those days of yore and the horse-drawn carriages pulling up to discharge their gentile passengers, dressed in their finery. The place oozes a sophistication that is reminiscent of times past.

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Had I been born slightly smaller in stature, more petite (more? how am I kidding?), I reckon I’d have thrown my hat at a jockey or three.  I love the idea of that life. Dick Francis is about the only author whose books I read over and over and over again. I never get tired of them. Someday, somehow, somewhere I will be in the winners’ enclosure collecting a trophy when my horse crosses the finish line first. As it is, with the imagination I have, I can just about get the feeling of what it must be like to have so much invested in such amazingly majestic creatures. I’m not talking money here, rather time, emotion, and hope. The pride the owners, trainers, grooms, and jockeys must feel when their horse comes home in front is envious.

If you’re in Budapest this summer, take a Sunday out for Kinscem Park. You won’t be sorry. And, of course, mark your diary for the IHBC derby day on the first Sunday in July. I’ll see you there.

A job half-done

When she died on her thirteenth birthday on St Patrick’s Day in 1887, Hungary mourned its loss. The nation’s flags flew at half-mast and Hungarians knew they would never see the like of her again. All around the world, those who knew her and knew of her, realised how truly amazing she had been.

Kincsem was probably the most successful thoroughbred racehorse ever, winning all 54 races she started in. While she later became the toast of Europe, there was a time when she was passed over because she was too common looking. Legend has it that she went missing from home one night. She’d been running with 49 other horses on her owner’s estate and was by far the most ungainly. She turned up later  with a band of gypsies.  When her owner asked why they’d chosen Kincsem above the others, he was told that although the other horses might be better looking, she was the one who would be the champion. And she was. She won fifty-four races in five countries and was never defeated.

Kincsem was sired in Kisbér – a small town in northwestern Hungary that was once home to the Hungarian National Riding School. She was bred by Ernest de Blascovich, a young man in his 20s whose horses went on to achieve great things. The town’s horsebreeding history kicked off in 1830, when the Battyány family  started  breeding imported English thoroughbreds and  later established a military studfarm that was to become state property. The old Battyány home was used till recently as a hospital and now stands empty.

The buildings are now historic monuments, the largest of which is the  recently renovated Royal riding hall, originally built in 1859 and in its day one of the largest covered riding schools in Europe. Sadly, it sits empty at the centre of what is called Ménesbirtok (studfarm) but is really a group of buildings that are crying out for a developer to continue developing.

Millions 0f EU funding has already been spent and yet there’s an air of desertedness about the place. Yes, it was a Sunday afternoon in November, but what better time to visit a museum? A search of the Net yielded little so while the converted stalls are labelled Kincsem souvenirs, Huszar museum, etc., I found myself wondering what exactly lay behind those closed doors. White elephants perhaps?

I’m a great fan of racing and like few things better than to while away an afternoon at the races. I grew up in Co. Kildare, home of the Irish National Stud, a county where racing is very much a part of life.  I still have hopes of one day owning at least a leg of  horse and feeling the pride that goes with entrance to the winners’ enclosure.

I’d also like to go back to Kisbér to see the museum so if anyone has any details about opening times / events, please let me know.

Horses for courses

It’s been years and years and years since I’ve been to the National Stud in Co. Kildare. It hasn’t lost its magic. Six stallions are currently in residence, each with their own private quarters which include a skylight. The stud was started by Scotsman Hall Walker who employed a rather eccentric breeding style. He wanted the horses to be able to look up at the moon and stars and when deciding which foals to keep and which to sell, he consulted the stars. Now there’s a man I’d like to have to dinner.

With fees for cover ranging from €4,500 to €60,000, many of the stallions will be put to work at least 200 times a year. The better their offspring do, the more expensive their seed becomes. Generally, breeders wait to see how their offspring do as two-year-olds. Wouldn’t that be an interesting way of measuring people’s worth – if they were judged by the behaviour of their kids.

The stud is beautifully laid out and exquisitely kept. When she visited last year, the Queen stopped by to pay her respects and, given the sucess her family has had in racing horses sired in the National Stud. Ambling the grounds is a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon – the guided tour takes all of 35 minutes and there are plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to wander into. St Fiachra’s garden is a tribute to the patron saint of gardeners the world over. Rocks and water are heavily featured and the garden itself is just what I’d like to have, if I win the lotto and can afford a place in the country with room for a pony.

Perhaps the oddest feature of all though, is the skeleton of the famous Arkle, who won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in 1964Anthony Byles has this to say: Arkle was incomparable. Not only was he a great athlete, but he had an inexplicable presence that captivated all who were touched by him. The adulation with which he was regarded extended beyond the racing public. There was no doubt he was arrogant, as could be testified by the way he would appear to swagger round the parade ring or savour the applause after one of his victories. And the heights he would sometimes clear his fences – was he not just taking the rise out of the opposition? Yes, arrogant he may have been. But he had plenty to be arrogant about.

Not far from Kildare Village – the outlet stores, it’s also next door to the Japanese Gardens. Is it any wonder really that I’ve met so few Kildare people in my travels? Why would you leave a county that’s Ireland’s answer to Kentucky and home to the country’s oldest golf course and a race-course dating to the seventeenth century and has some of the most fertile land in Ireland?