Picture the scene. A cool breezy day towards the end of a long hot summer. A spread of patchwork fields and winding lanes and the unmistakably distinctive agricultural aroma of British countryside, with just a hint of charcoaled burger. And in one particular field, a thronging mass of humanity huddled together straining their eyes if not their sinews as a horde of multicoloured jockeyed thoroughbred horses charge full pelt head on towards them. Bangor. On a Wednesday afternoon.
Switching off. It’s just like saying thank you. Everyone should to be able to do it, yet not everybody does – or perhaps even can. And in my experience the further up the corporate tree you get, the more important it is to switch off once in a while, and the more dire the consequences are of failing to. I’m lucky in that not switching off is simply not an option for me. In fact to be honest there’s probably a number of people I’ve worked with and lived around that think I’m a bit too good at it. No matter. It’s better to be that way than in a box.
There is a conclusion from all my extensive research on the subject, and from all the various different switch off methodologies available. And that is, that for me at least, there is nothing on earth that helps shut out the trials and tribulations of the fast lane Executive life, than losing yourself (and probably some money) and blending into the crowd at the races. Over many years I have honed the ability to fade into the background – something you just cannot do as a focal point on an Executive team – and just take in the cornercopia of wonders that everyday life can throw at you, letting them wash over you and delight you. And believe me, it’s throws all sorts right at you if you keep your eyes and ears open and let it. I find that on an average afternoon I’m able to lose myself totally by getting swept along in the universal sea of optimism and hope, which almost always gets displaced by a gritty dose of reality and acceptance, but always while maintaining a sharp and dark humour and an overall sense of fun. And this is from the tens, or hundreds, or thousands of different souls thrown together from all avenues of life. But just for that day, all drawn to the same spectacle. I’ve found quite simply that there is no better day out than a day out at the races.
It wasn’t like it was forced into me at gunpoint from birth, like some hereditary pastimes can be. Apart from my grandad religiously devouring his regular fill of Saturday afternoon TV races, and then occasionally leaving me outside the metal beaded curtain of the local bookies while he “popped in” for a couple of minutes en route to our putting match in the local public gardens, I had no exposure to racing at all. And even my grandad had to bypass his favourite shop and switch channels after my mum spotted me on the street one day during one of my grandads said sojourns. No, I found racing myself – well after puberty. Or more to the point what I actually found was not racing, but an actual physical trip to the races. It quickly became a release. Indeed at times it became more than a release. Occasionally even a threat. Not the gambling, I’ve always been able to keep a perspective about that, but just the full immersion in racing and it’s folk, which at times risked being all consuming.
One time when it became a threat to how my life was mapping out, was during the first trip away with my prospective (now actual) mother in law. The trip was to Dublin and the threat manifested itself in the lobby of the Hilton hotel. But the story began much earlier. As well as big racing venues I also found immense enjoyment in smaller venues, where you were part of an intimate regular throng who “knew” each other. Not actually knew each other of course, that would be ridiculous, but visually acknowledged each other with nods and glances, and certainly recognised the mutual bond and shared fascination of “the game”. Bookie, punter, casual observer – it made no matter – you were a “face”. I enjoyed being a “face” more than I should have, but I was shocked when I also suddenly and unexpectedly became a “name”. At a meeting at the dogs with about 20 hardcore souls present I popped down to the bookies boards to put my bet on, fully expecting the norm of being given a good old fashioned numbered piece of card, and to then quietly walk away. Instead, I got no card, but instead a loud booming non negotiable bookie voice that declared to the assembled gathering “put that down to Colin”. Now, I’ve been called many things in my time, and some of them by my mother, but never had my mother, nor anyone else for the matter, called me Colin. Because it’s not my name. Startled, I immediately turned tail and headed for the top terrace shrinking and slinking with every step, away from the perceived shame of the naming game. But without really thinking through my instinctive retreating reaction. This bookie was a real face and had a REALLY real voice. I was simply unable to rectify this error due to some weird self imposed fear of the potential for embarrassment, so for the rest of that night, then the next time and then so on, Colin I became. To the bookie. To the assembled throng. And quickly spreading to the throngs at other racing venues. Fast forward a few years to a check in line in the lobby of the Hilton, Dublin. There we were: me, my girlfriend – soon to be wife, and the future mother in law. And of course, on that particular night, also in that particular check in queue unbeknown to me, was the aforementioned bookie, the owner of the booming voice, on an away trip to sample the dogs on a big night at Shelbourne Park. “Hello COLIN…” came the familiar enthusiastic foghorn from behind me. And I froze. It took more than a bit of explaining to the future MIL that one did I can assure you. One of her favourite phrases – “and the band played believe me if you like” figured loud and clear and often during my struggling explanations.
Despite the potential confusion of acquiring this pseudonym, I still carried on attending and blending wherever and whenever I could. I came to realise it was less about being a “face” (the Colin episode spooked me out of that one) but more about taking in what was going on around you. People from all different walks of life, all visibly loving life and especially the racing life. The tweedies rubbing shoulders with the lager louts. Brassy Babs and Voracious Veronica’s. Irish and British. Bookies and punters. Old and young. All mixing together far better than any urban planner or government department could dream of. Don’t believe the press. Sure there a a few isolated altercations, but they are the exception and usually only at the “showcase” meetings and venues and certainly not from a “real” racing crowd.
As my career has grown and I’ve been able to spread Executive wings around the world, I’ve also been lucky enough to sample racing, and racing crowds around the world. What’s the same. What’s different. And despite huge chasm differentials in cultures and environments and language, there is far more that is exactly the same at the races than there are differences. I would argue there are more similarities in a racing crowd than in almost any other walk of life. Sure the energy and buzz of the crowd at a Happy Valley track in Hong Kong, or even at a manic and just plain odd Seoul racetrack has a pace and intensity that you would not see at the laid back Garrison Savannah in Barbados or Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, but the passion and fervour of the win, and the despair of the close call loss is exactly the same. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is that shared empathy and understanding of the passions involved. Aqueduct in New York and Woodbine in Toronto are on the face of it fairly scary giant concrete structures with little charm, quirks or finesses – and you could say the same about most of the crowd (certainly the scary giants part). And yet if you throw yourself in, empathise and enthuse at the right junctures, then the acceptance level you’ll receive from the locals is exactly the same. Some of my favourites places though are where the crowd really are the show, and you can take people watching to a whole new level. Panoramic country courses in Ireland are the best, give me a Thurles, a Navan, a Tramore and a Killarney any day of the week, and I will show you the most knowledgeable and entertaining crowd intertwined into the very fabric of racing that you will ever see. Whispers and whiskies abound in cosy hidden bars and every stranger is treated like a guest of honour and a new best friend. And then there’s the grandeur of Melbourne races, whether it’s Moonee Valley, my personal favourite Caulfield, or the king of kings Flemington. The crowds here know how to have a good time and do it loudly and brashly, but still the crowd watching drug is mesmeric. And then of course back to the home of racing. Your Aintree’s and your Ascot’s and saving the very best for last, your Cheltenham’s. Everyone should experience that at least one in a lifetime – I defy anyone to not love it.
Which brings us back to my particular love of it all. And the relative tranquility and simplicity of a Wednesday afternoon meeting at Bangor. The journey there is for me a key part of the whole experience. A train ride that’s only purpose seems to be to traverse a diverse string of punters through a myriad of unpronounceable hamlets, to get not to their destination, but instead to where an even more rickety but free bus takes on the mantle of punter ferrier. Characters abound. A pair of opinionated geriatric thespians. Two respectable couples taking the day off. A group of loudly swearing Man Utd supporters. A lone country gent. And obviously a clinical nutter who chose to sit opposite me and talk about his dubious gambling feats. But all with the bonding tell tale signs of the racing paper and the specific excited chatter that precedes the racing. The bus dumps us in the gravel car park and we trudge through the turnstile and onto racecourse central, and another episode of my own personal executive release opens its main chapter. And just as always the people watching doesn’t disappoint. Just to add spice to the cocktail this particular afternoon we’re even treated to a princess arriving by helicopter (not a popular one of course). Even this barely registers a ripple across the emotion of the crowd, who are focussed on other things. A crowd I love. And will stay a part of. Even if they do occasionally call me Colin.