We were going to the races at last, after much postponing. And the best part was that we would be going to the last night race of the season. Instead of boiling under the hot sun, peering out over the midday glare, we would be catching the breezes ever present on the outskirts of the city. Not to mention the magic. We were all unsure of what to expect. Our sartorial expert, Alex, informed us that there was definitely a dress code at horse races in general (I fear this was based more on his childhood viewing of “My Fair Lady”). Following his instincts, he appeared in a summery beige suit, looking smart and cool. Diana topped her little black dress look with a close-fitting straw hat. We were joined at the last minute by Pablo, our favorite addition to any gathering, thanks to his lively personality, original observations and unflagging energy. Pablo, true to form, showed up in jeans and a bright turquoise t-shirt, which later proved useful for finding him in the crowd by the drinks stand.
A free shuttle bus leaves every 20 minutes from the Paseo Moret, in front of the Parque del Oeste; the ride takes 10 minutes along the Coruña road. We arrived at 9:15, early dusk with the evening sky just starting to show orange and pink streaks. Tickets on Thursday cost 5 euros. Our tickets checked at the gate, we entered the extensive grassy grounds dotted with drinks stands; apparently, this is a great clubbing area into the wee hours. First hint that no one would be standing on ceremony here: the enticing smell of frying chorizo and lamb chops! How was one supposed to enjoy a bocadillo de chorizo wearing a beige suit? I closed my eyes momentarily, picturing red grease stains falling brightly on a white shirtfront. Iindeed, apart from a stately blonde wearing a mini-skirt and sporting one of those stand-up sculpted hairdos that must have taken her several hours, and several tubes of hair gel, to achieve, most people were casual in bermuda shorts and jeans.
We carefully read our programs, relieved to see that, apart from complicated trebles and combination bets, one could simply bet one euro on any horse to place. That was my ticket for sure. That doubt resolved, we strolled around the grassy bit between the stands and the track, admiring the structure of the grandstand with its award-winning concrete canopy. A note on the history of the racetrack: Officially called the Hipódromo de La Zarzuela, it was begun in 1935 and practically completed by July 1936. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the fact that the racetrack was situated in an area of heavy fighting, left this project, like so many others, a pile of ruins by 1939. Reconstruction followed the original plans drawn up in the Thirties, and the racetrack was inaugurated in May 1941. The concrete used in the canopy is only 5 cm thick and the whole structure is fixed solely in the back, leaving most of the structure free-flying, imitating a huge canvas awning.
The first race was to start at 10:15. By now there were more people, the sky was completely dark and the racetrack was brilliantly lit up with huge spotlights to dramatic effect. We placed our bets, then wandered to the enclosure to see the first horses being led around in a circle. (Later, we changed this order: first we studied the horses as if it would help us decide the most likely winner. Ultimately, none of this made the slightest difference to the outcome of our results.) We just had time to hurry back to the stands, strategically settling on seats right in front of the finish line. Pablo wondered if yelling and shouting would be frowned upon. The horses were led out to the track, skittish and hard to control; the jockeys rode them up and down a bit, which seemed a real waste of energy to me. However, Carlos assured me that this was to get them to let off a bit of steam before the race. Shouldn’t they be letting off steam during the race? I still ask. Finally – and sometimes, with quite a bit of difficulty – the horses were properly lined up at the gate. A voice came over the loudspeakers giving all sorts of statistics that no one could make out. The sound of a crack –
And they were off!
The crowd roared!
Clichés all but absolutely true (as are most clichés, of course, hence their name.) Diana, binoculars in hand, yelled out information that was as incomprehensible as the voice over the loudspeaker, adding to the tension and excitement. The horses rounded the first curve and raced along the backstretch. A sustained yelling from the crowd. Then they hit the home turn and went into the head of the stretch (the races are only 1600 meters). With only seconds to go to the finish line, everyone leaped to their feet, cheering and egging on their horse (I think). We all jumped up too and shouted ourselves hoarse, although it wasn’t easy to follow where exactly one’s favorite horse was at any particular point; this is no doubt a handicap that can be eventually overcome with practice. It was all over in seconds.
There was about a half hour between races, time to go down and collect any winnings, check out the next round of horses, place new bets. Diana, emboldened, started placing doubles and trebles and with utter brazenness. I refused to throw away any of my stubs until checked and confirmed; we were such neophytes that I didn’t trust us to be able to decipher all of the possible results. (Plus I once read that a very high percentage of lottery winnings were never even collected, and certainly didn’t want to be one of those statistics.) Between the five of us we, tried out different ways of predicting the next winner. Some thought it depended on the jockey, others on the horse’s projection in previous races. Sometimes we just liked the names. Once decided, we took careful note of our jockeys’ colors in order to try to follow them in the mad bolt around the track.
Midnight came and went. Out in the garden, lines got longer for those bocadillos, long drinks and whiskeys on the rocks made a strong showing, and people’s informal attire got a bit fancier. We now had our routine down pat. Up and down the concrete stairs, mixing with the crowds and people-watching, discussing the relative musicality of names like Doña Pepita and Blue Satin. I especially liked the noise under the flat ceiling of the vomitoria as we would work our way back out to the track to watch the next race. Eventually, it was time to go back. The bus left us back in the city; we had spent a grand total of approximately 15 euros, minus my winnings of 2 euros. Altogether a highly recommendable experience for a hot summer’s night.
Post by Clea.