BIRTHDAY AT THE RACES

Nothing is more beautiful than the Leopardstown race meeting in early September by Mary McEvoy

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Birthdays have no real significance at my age, but since I have found the perfect present in recent years, I enjoy them once again.    I have no sense of elation at the significant ones where the second digit is zero, because when the first digit goes up by ten, my reaction is one of mild disbelief that I remain on the planet.

When my mother died, during my early teenage years, I grew certain that my lifespan would emulate hers, which explains my surprise at still being here. Perhaps as an attempt to blur the years, I made few efforts to mark my birthdays. But since I have fortunately surpassed the length of her life, I have become more comfortable with the passing of time. My mother, Bernadette Trainor McEvoy, was a great woman and mother. We were especially close, and in our few years of shared life I can only recall two arguments! She nourished me in every possible motherly way and set a high standard for my own mothering role, which I continue to try to meet on a daily basis. Parents of sons and daughters with special needs know all too well the superhuman demands placed upon us.

In the 1970s, when Tim and Mary Kate were very young, I would take them to a summer race meeting nearby. I took a blanket and packed lunch, with minerals and a half-bottle of wine. They had room to roam safely between me and the fence, and our vantage point at the beginning of the home stretch afforded us the thrill of hearing the ‘wall of noise’ described by race writer Dick Francis—as the horses were first sighted by the waiting thousands, necks craning to the left, standing on whatever was nearby for a better view.

Twenty years later, Tim now takes Mary Kate and me to Leopardstown for my birthday. With Tim and his wife Sinéad, all parental duties of mine are virtually eliminated, as they place our bets, order drinks and provide the added pleasure of their company.

The Dubai Millennium Stakes at Leopardstown is one of eight races held for qualification in Dubai and it draws the best of horses. In 1999, I saw Frankie Dettori win on Daylami; in 2000 my darling Michael Kinnane was victorious on Giant’s Causeway; and in 2001, on Galileo, he lost by a nose to Frankie on Fantastic Light.

Mary Kate has a lifelong betting system which she applies at the track, and at home for RTÉ and Channel 4 racing: Number Three. I was very tempted to think she had stumbled upon something, as Number Three did seem to win more frequently. A letter to Tracey Piggot about my ‘theory’ produced a very charming reply, but she could reveal no magic number statistically.

My method is equally scientific: with scant interest in form or favour, I bet on the names that appeal to me, unless there is a huge favourite running. Needless to say, neither of us goes home with a full purse, but the dram has been lived and lost.

Leopardstown’s pastoral setting, only minutes from city centre, is unique. My favourite spot is outside Fillies Café Bar, on a small patio with tables, umbrellas and bar service. I have queued hours before the first race to secure a spot there. Directly adjacent to the ring, we can see all the players up close. Racing people do look different, not just because of their accoutrements of special credentials—binoculars—but also their deep tans and very expensive gear.

Immediately following the horses’ departure for the track, we race through the building to the front, for a space as near the finishing line as possible. Arthritic feet place me at a distinct disadvantage. Mary Kate has developed her own method of moving through crowds, so I follow her. Fortified by the courage of cider, she puts her head down and burrows through bodies with abandon. I follow in her aftermath and, before people have regained their equilibrium, we emerge unnoticed. People know something has moved past, somewhat recklessly, and without any pleasantries such as ‘Excuse me’ or ‘Sorry’—such manners just don’t apply to the masses at Leopardstown. In the bars, such words are met with blank faces and no movement to allow for passage.

But outside, in the September sun on the little patio, protected by breezes from a glass wall, the world is a beautiful place to be. On my last birthday, as I sipped my gin and ginger ale, I said to Mary Kate: ‘This must be heaven!’

Mary Kate, always open to possibilities and miracles, replied: ‘Is it, mum?’

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