Horse No. 1, Come in Please
The Garrison Savannah has been the home of horse racing in Barbados since 1845. The officers of the British Regiment, who were stationed in Barbados, used what was then the parade ground to match their horses in races and the wealthy merchants and planters later joined them. Now, the Savannah is the home of the Barbados Turf Club, which regulates and promotes horse racing in Barbados. It was established in 1905 and organises three seasons of racing per year, with approximately 25 race meetings throughout the year running from January to April (Spring Season); May to September (Summer Season) and from November to December (Winter Season). Gold Cup Day occurs on the first Saturday in March every year.
The Pink Starter Sharing a Joke
The track is a 6 furlongs oval grass strip and races are run at distances of 5 furlongs (1000m); 5½ furlongs (1100m); 7.8 furlongs (1570m); 9 furlongs (1800m) and 10 furlongs (2000m), with the horses running in a clockwise direction.
This would be the first horse racing event I had ever attended, so I was looking forward to this new experience. Rex did his best to get tickets for the Grand Stand, sadly without success, but he managed to get tickets for the Stand. It would be a case of getting there early so that we collar a trio of seats. We arrived at 10:15 when there was still seats to be had. The first race would commence at 11:30, with a total of 12 races roughly spaced 30 minutes apart.
Colourful crowds were already pouring into the course, all wearing a multitude of attire, and of all age groups. Many holidaymakers attended the meeting, in particular many Canadians. As one of them put it to me, "The snow in my yard is well over a metre deep, this is a good place to get away from it all."
Food stalls and bars were liberally scattered around the area, and people seemed to be doing a lot of eating throughout the day.
The first race of the day was the Bajan Blue Restaurant Trophy for West Indian Bred 3-year-olds. Only four horses would be running in the event, and there was a clear favourite. We joined the long queues at the betting booths. Here lay the fundamental weakness of the event, there were not enough folk working in the betting booths, so long queues were forming. I was patiently standing in line to have a flutter when everything ground to a halt. The Bajan National Anthem was being played, so all the workers stood to attention until it had ended. It was while standing in these queues that short term "friendships" were formed with other likeminded souls.
The Final Straight
Once the bet had been placed, I returned to join my pals in time to see the owners of the horses about to race cross the track in all their finery to the Parade Ring. Stable lads then led the horses out of the stables and across the track to the parade ring, much to the excitement of the crowd. Crumbs, if this is what it is like just walking the horses across the track, how will the crowd react during the actual race. These were magnificent specimens, the horses that is, not the owners, all muscle tuned to perfection for this short lived explosive event.
The jockeys in their colourful silks then walked across to the Parade Ring, mounted their horses, did another lap or two around the ring, and were then led out onto the track. They then slowly cantered their equine charges around to the starting stalls. Now the owners returned back to the Grand Stand, the women awkwardly treading the turf in their high heels, carefully counterbalanced by their fancy fascinators.
The excitement in the crowd was building up: the buzz, the banter, the rise in volume, the smiles, laughter and nervous looks, it was very tangible. Then the bell sounded and the horses shot out of their stalls; a loud cheer rose up from the Savannah.
Where's My Horse?
Through gaps between the marquees in the centre of the track we caught sight of horses and their riders hurtling along. A long sweeping bend brought them to the final straight. The commentary was unintelligible, and as we looked straight down the long straight from our position, the foreshortened perspective hindered our vision of the relative positions of the horses, never mind which horse was which. The excitement produced by the thousands of exuberant spectators was contagious. The noise from the crowd rose to a crescendo, and the beasts were flying when they reached the final line about 50m from us, but we did make out the number of the winner as they sped past us. I was pleasantly surprised to discover I had backed the winner. Pats on the back from my mates.
Meanwhile, a couple of retired Canadian ladies sat beside us. They hailed from central Ontario. We had a chance to chat before the next race. After raising her family, one of the ladies had gone to university to obtain a degree in order to teach. Good for her I thought. The other lady had been a school secretary all her working life, a job she adored. However, on reaching the age of 65 she was forced to retire, just as one of her grandchildren was about to start the school, much to her disappointment. Neither of the ladies gambled, though the family of the retired secretary had all enjoyed a flutter at racing events. However, the other lady did venture a bet on this occasion.
Rex, Meryl and I had a bet on the second race, but the best I could do was 3rd. Realising what a pain it was queueing at the betting booths, we decided it may be a better policy to place any bets on two consecutive races. With this in mind I queued up to place bets for us on races 3 and 4. The queue was so long that the third race had started before I got to the booth. But what made the exercise worthwhile was the memorable screaming and bouncing antics of the Bajans in the queues as the winner romped home - unbelievable. My spirits were rejuvenated when my chosen horse for the fourth race came in as the winner.
Did We Win on That One?
I also managed to pick the winners of the next two races too. Then my luck ran out, but not to worry since the sheer pleasure of being in the Stand with all the colour and hullabaloo during the day was remarkable. As Meryl put it, "We may lose some money on the horses, but think of the pleasure we have obtained during the day. You can't put a price on that." She was right of course, she normally is.
A tall African Bajan in a pink suit, white sash, white top hat, and carrying a white flag wandered around the Stand, Parade Ring and track. He was the starter, a colourful character in more ways than one.
The degree of animation and roars from the crowd increased as each race took place; the atmosphere was already electrifying. Perhaps one of the Canadian ladies was getting too excited since she went off to get an ice-cream. On her return, the poor lass managed to lose the contents of her cone as she sat down. She took it all in her stride, bent down and scooped up what she could into her cone and enjoyed it. Around us whole families were enjoying Bajan dishes like pudding and souse, rice and stew, fried fish and fish cakes. Quenching the thirst was not a problem either, with drinks ranging from refreshing coconut water and icy cold beer to the finest Bajan rum.
Races whizzed by, and soon we reached race 10, the one everyone had come to see, the XXXVI Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup for 3-year-olds and over. Prior to the race a parade proceeded around the course, a military band played a collection of National Anthems based loosely around the nationalities of the horses in the race. The Bajans politely stood for these anthems, though we could barely hear them from where we were situated. Then Rihanna, a Bajan singer, songwriter, and actress, together with her backing band, blasted out a few songs from a stage behind the parade ring.
Then the excitement built up to a fever pitch as the horses were led onto the Parade Ring, slowly followed by the jockeys in their silks. We had placed our final bets on this race. The Canadian ladies left after the parade just as they said they would. Sadly they were replaced by two boozy, overweight German guys, one of whom seemed to have a problem with flatulation.
Eventually the horses and their mounts trotted off around the course to the starting stalls, but there must have been a problem at the start since it took an age before the horses were sent on their merry way. Folk had been getting impatient, and there was an exceedingly loud cheer when they did get started. The cheering was deafening, and the dancing and cavorting fanatic, the whole Stand a mass of moving colours and noise as the horses flew down the final straight. And then it was all over, the whole Savannah still bubbling with excitement. A few ecstatic spectators invaded the track, a nightmare for the police on duty. After 5 minutes, the winning horse and jockey crept slowly back up the course passing the throbbing, cheering Stand, with a jubilant owner hanging on to its reins. A very proud, and lucrative, moment for the man. The race had been fast and furious, and none of us won a single dollar in this epic race.
Ten races had been enough for us, and we decided to call it a day, as did the bulk of the people in the ground. Garrison Road at the rear of the Stand was heaving with people flooding out of the course. A long line of cars stood helplessly grid-locked. Amazingly, Rex managed to hail a cab. Our gregarious driver slowly edged his cab through the mayhem. Once free of the localised grid-lock, he knew the back roads past the garrison stables, garrison school and Hunt Gardens area that avoided a lot of the race traffic.
We'd had a cracking day at the races, I managed to pick four winners, but overall I had lost far more than I gained. Rex had picked one winner and Meryl scored nil. I put my good luck down to Rex's superb tuition that he gave me before we left for the races.
It had been a long day, which we followed up with a supermarket shop, just what you need after a long day, and a superb meal cooked by Meryl back at base.
To round it off I investigated our neighbour's trash bins, which stank terribly. Rotten meat must have been at the bottom of one, the interior of the bin was a mass of flies. Hmm ... this was not good news.