This piece was a collaboration between myself and Ewan Angus (his gibberish is in italics, mines is not).
On racedays in Musselburgh the ‘Electric Bridge’, constructed for heavy vehicles used to build Cockenzie power station, is opened to all traffic. The whole town froths at the mouth at the novelty of trimming a couple of minutes off a journey through the town centre. Racedays are huge for the town; local restaurants thrive off them and anyone who can do gets along to watch. As we approach the racecourse itself I’m reminded of exactly how my innocence was lost in this town. Just a lad, I used to come along to the races with my mates and jump the fence and get into all manner of scrapes and shenanigans. However, after the age of eighteen going to the races took on an entirely different meaning. Once I came of age a dreadful beast was revealed to me, the terrible vice of gambling. A seductive bitch that tempts you in, pulls you to bed, tears the shirt from your back and then promptly leaves you to the will of the evil dominatrix Lady Luck. This was the downfall of my tender youth and the descent into a gambling addiction that would last until just shortly before I turned twenty.
One of the worst things about having a cold is the destruction it does to your sense of smell. Everything becomes neutered. You can’t smell your tea, your food, your own deodorant. However, you can still smell horse. It’s a pervasive smell, sharp, like the smell equivalent of licking a battery. That’s what blasted through my cold and assaulted my sinuses anyway.
As soon as we get in through the gates and out onto the paddock the familiar buzz returns. It’s the same devilish feeling that told me that spending a month’s wages on one night of TV roulette was a fantastic idea. I hadn’t met this old foe in quite some time – how fitting that it should return at the scene of its birth. For me, Musselburgh races isn’t so much “decadent and depraved” as Thompson’s Kentucky Derby, but more tantalising and torturous. I begin to get a sense that this may be the first ever piece of sado-masochistic journalism but decide not to tell Ewan as I know he will lap it up and encourage it. In terms of the racing calendar today’s event isn’t very significant. The turnout is reasonable but only due to fair weather and there is an atmosphere of professionalism about proceedings. Owners, trainers, people looking to buy, photographers, journalists, even professional gamblers. We’re here to observe and under no circumstances will I become part of the spectacle by giving in and playing bookie’s gimp for the afternoon. Despite these intentions I did take a brief look over the racecard on the way and jotted down a few potential winners. I try to establish some control over myself and take a seat at the top of the grandstand
It’s from here that I realise that rather than being a stand it is in fact just a giant set of steps hat will inevitably lead you back down to the betting circle. Concrete steps that seem to mirror an ashen grey sky leading down into the flashing lights and temptation of the bookie’s stands.
The men stand shouting virtually incoherent statements about this horse matrix screen they have beside them. “Golden Halo, pay out. You son. What number? The horse? No. The number.” See. That sentence means nothing. I was there and it meant nothing. However, everyone else in this place understood. Everyone with their plastic cup of Tenants, their half tonne of chips on a plastic bowl/plate and their twitching fingers hovering near the pocket in which the wallet is.
Peter Collins belts out that he’s offering fives for Berbice while Bert Logan triumphantly informs us that at Berlington Bertie the price is right to get on Novalist. One look at Ewan’s bemused face is enough to let me know that he needs a bit of a rundown on exactly what’s going on. I furnish himwith enough knowledge to get by, but it proves to be the bait I need. At the simplistic level I boiled it down to for him it all seems so easy. Betting on Berbice brings me back a profit of five times what I put in, how can I get it wrong?
After having it explained to me it does make a kind of sense – the name system that is – but not one that’s worth bothering about.
Before I’m fully aware of it there’s a ticket in my hand, a solid declaration of five pounds worth of my faith in a horse I’ve never even met that a jumbled numerology tells me will win this race.
The second showroom is between the racetrack and the stands. This is where the punters gather whilst about them stand the bookies next to their Horse Matrices and standing on upside down boxes. They talk incoherent gibberish, look at you like you may actually be a walking turd and spend the whole time the race is on rubbing the piles of cash they have accumulated like it is their own crotch. This is while the folks who have come to haemorrhage money stand about pointed making eye contact with randoms. “Like my new winter coat from Debenhams? Fucking suck it up. Cost me the equivalent of a mortgage.”
Inevitably Berbice proves to be worth the paper the ticket is printed on and after just one race I’m already chasing a loss. Another fiver goes on. Another hopeless nag screws me over and Lady Luck cracks her whip, I’m hers now and she can do whatever she wants. I can’t even remember the safe word. An entire parade of tomorrow’s glue pot ingredients go down because I’ve backed them and the sky darkens further with a threat of rain. I realise that this is how it hooked me in the first place, lose your first few bets and forever chase a loss. I’ve had enough and I’m almost cleaned out and take one last shot. The eternally smug, vice-free prick Ewan sits there with a tightly clamped wallet and I want to glass him.
And the grass? Jeez, you have never seen grass like this. It must have been biologically engineered to look and feel like nature’s duvet. You just want to lie down in it, then you smell horse and you want to vomit.
Since it’s the last race before we go home I force him to lose his gambling virginity and dodge through the door of fate’s brothel with a cheeky couple of quid on a random horse. He’s not even that excited, there’s no loss to chase, and two quid is easily traded hands. Predictably Ewan picks the only horse born with naturally occurring rocket hooves and this incredible beast blasts home and nets him thirty quid. I consider snatching the ticket and pushing him down the concrete steps to a bloody death but instead take solace in a glorious string of expletives that ruffle a few nearby feathers.
All the while the punters, the suckers, the drunks and the tories waltz around or stand dejected. Play the odds and you can have a great day. I didn’t play the odds and won thirty quid. Although I did feel a little paranoid at the fact the very first time I have ever bet on anything, never mind horses, my horse wins. I’m not paranoid, I just don’t believe in coincidence.