England - The Grand National

by Kimp 7. June 2016 05:23

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Welcome !!!

The Grand National is a house race over obstacles that requires a combination of athleticism, endurance, and stamina. It is considered the most difficult horse race in the world (the ultimate test of horse and rider), and is held every April at Aintree Race Course near Liverpool England. It is nearly twice as long as most Steeple Chase (obstacle) races and has both the tallest (by a significant margin) and highest number of obstacles, some being in combination with water obstacles.

My Experience

The Grand National festival is three days long. Opening day, Ladies Day, and Race Day. I was in Liverpool on Ladies day and thought about going, but stayed in Liverpool instead. Ladies day is cheaper and I think they have a bunch of fashion events and fashion competitions that day. Probably awesome for women, but I would have been completely lost, had I gone.

Actually what happened, was I was on the train when about 30 sharply dressed women of various ages boarded and surrounded me. They were all dressed up (many in white) and obviously were part of the same group. All women and no dudes except me. For about 10 minutes I was thinking that was pretty nice. Yea, this is like awesome. At first the women were all sweet, telling stories and laughing, and carrying on. They have the wine bottles out, open, and are pouring liberally. Within ten minutes, the noise level had ramped up to the point where it felt like my ears were bleeding. I was observing that the women were really in like four or maybe five smaller groups, within the larger group, and competition was starting to play into their interactions.

Man, when women start competing, it gets real ugly, real quick. No mercy as all. Wow. Some don't know when to stop talking and just keep adding fuel to the fire. Others are giving the stink eye, stewing, and not talking at all. Others look like they are planing and conniving. A few mom types who have seen many of these battles and are kind of being silent observers, non judgemental, and just riding it through. And two were already oblivious to anything because they were quite trashed with alcohol, and their day hadn't even really started yet.

I got all sad and decided to make my way, all of the way to the other side of the train car.

The only open seat was on the side of four rough looking dudes, who appeared to know each other well. After I sat down, I could tell that they were talking Russian for the most part, but occasionally talked in English. One of them probably didn't speak Russian. Then one of them open's his jacket and pulls out a bottle of Vodka. Pop's the top and start's passing it around. They are all drinking Vodka, not out of glasses, but directly from the same bottle. It makes its way around to the roughest looking dude, who is sitting right next to me. He takes a swig from the bottle, pauses for a second, then extends this arm in my direction, "Hey comrade !!! Would you like some?". I look at my watch and it is like 11 A.M., an hour before noon. "No, but thanks, I'm all good. This is my stop,  I need to go.". I got up and exited, then caught another train to visit Liverpool's port area instead. 

On race day, I had reserved parking tickets. However, there is a local train from Liverpool that had a stop just outside of the race course (the one I was on the day before), and I knew I would be drinking a bit, so the train was the best option for me.

Only jockeys and owners are allowed to walk the actual race course, but anyone is allowed to walk on the old Grand Prix track that runs in its midway. 1964 was the last Grand Prix race held on that course. Now, only motor cycle races are held there.

That was a great walk, getting up close to several of the historical fences (mostly the same since 1839) and seeing the old school golf course that is also in the midway. The green's aren't raised, so it has a fairly natural appearance to it. The golf course is only 9 holes, but a long 9 holes, so it plays like half of an 18 hole course.

Liverpool England in April is fairly cool and wet. I was at a table in one of the nicer pavilion's, in the mid level of one of the larger Grand Stand's (Earl of Derby), that was very close to the finish line. All of the elements to ensure success, dinner, drinks, dryness, warmth, company, and snacks were included.

The Grand National is the fifth of six races on race day. There are about 40 minutes between each race, used for socializing and each race is about 5 minutes in length. I sat inside for about 35 minutes and went out on the balcony to watch the race.

The staff was plentiful. It seemed like there were three staff member assigned to make sure my glass never made it to half empty. Maybe it was the way I looked or the way they were trained, but if I even looked like I was idle, someone was asking if I wanted another beer or something else. I have had a few great service experiences before, but nothing as attentive and awesome as that.

Most women dress in neo-gilded age attire, complete with fashionable hats. The dudes usually wear their best suit's. I was a bit under dressed, but felt very comfortable, as none seemed to be uncomfortable with me, under dressing them.

Two of the dudes next to me were from Ireland and were very heavy better's. It seemed like that was all that they were interested in. They were not doing well that day and it showed. Another guy from England was fairly good at betting that day, but shared a lot more interest's beside betting. He traveled to Houston often on business and knew a lot about the states. He was familiar with both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In fact most of his conversation were not about horses, nor what was going on that day. An older couple (celebrating their 45th anniversary) from England was delightful. They were very down to earth and we got along great. The women shared lots of their personal story's with me. She gave me some tips on great places in England to visit.They were married on Grand National day, and their wedding got held up for an hour, because he was at a pub watching the race (now there is a man's man). It looked like they were fairly well off.

I left with the same amount of money that I arrived with, my belly was full, my alcohol level was in the fully relaxed range, and my head was in a good space. So overall, I was feeling great about everything.

Fox Hunting
The origin of fox hunting goes back to the 1500's when farmers trained their farm dog's to assist them in ridding their land, of pesky foxes who were killing their farm animals.

Over time, it became very popular as a sport, in the UK, because the deer population was decreasing and hunting foxes does not require nearly as much open land as deer hunting does. Fox hunters do not carry any firearm's, it is one of the dog's that kill the fox. So it is open and safe for people of all ages, which adds to it's attraction. The humans are merely observing what occurs naturally in nature, every day.  In additional to foxes; deer's rabbits, minks, coyote, and bobcats are sometimes hunted in a similar manner. When they hunt deer, the dogs are trained to separate a deer from the herd, then attack it.

The dogs are trained to act on commands issued by either voice calls or the the blowing of a horn, issued by the master who is sometimes called the huntsman. The calls fall into three categories:
Signal (short horn sounds)
   Drawing - Get the pack moving in a particular direction, keep them from going too far away from the huntsman, or to startle the fox and get it moving.
   Calling the whipper in - This is a call from the huntsman to other human's that support the hunt. For them to come and see him.

Disappointed (wailing/sad horn sounds)
   Calling hounds out - telling the dogs they are definitely looking in the wrong place, because they have exhausted the current location.
   Stopping Hounds - telling the dogs to stop hunting something other than the fox. Dogs sometimes get side tracked.
   Gone to Ground - Means the Fox has taken refuge underground.
   The Kill - Signals that the fox has been caught by a hound, and killed. Congratulatory to the hound. (it is in this category cause it sounds kind of sad, but really its a victory call)
   Blowing for Home - It is time to call it a day even though they did not succeed.
Doubled (very short notes, in a rapid and excited manner)
   Doubling - Telling the dogs that the fox is on the move and exciting them to move and start the visual search.
   Blowing Away - (short doubled notes in rapid succession) - The fox is in open ground and on the move, search in the open and run really fast.

Voice Only
  Holla - The job of the remaining people (other then the master) in the hunt, is to know but one single voice command. Which is "Holloa", pronounced "Holler". The signal to the dog's that you have seen the fox, calling them to your general direction. This is where the expressions, "Just give me a holler." and "Stop hollering at me." came from.

Humans are just observer's and can be on foot or horseback during the hunt.

For people on horseback the experience is fulfilling, because in pursuit, they get to take the horse over all kinds of obstacles and into places that they would not normally go with a horse. It is also very popular for people on foot. In the UK, 250,000+ participate in fox hunting on Boxing day (usually the day after Christmas).

Foxes are very smart. They know that dogs are tracking them by scent, so they double back or run in circles to hide their exit point and confuse the dogs. The sport ends when the fox is killed by one of the dogs or the dogs lose it's scent and sunlight falls.

Fox hunting is popular in the the UK, Ireland, US (where it is called fox chase), Australia, Canada, France, Italy, India and Russia.

Activists (Sabs) try to sabotage the events by putting down false scents to confuse or mislead the dogs and by blowing horn's, to confuse the dogs with mixed signals.

in the UK, hunting with dogs became very controversial due to extensive activism, and as a result, was outlawed in the UK in 2004, where fox hunting has been most prevalent and is part of their tradition. Traditional fox hunts are allowed in the UK, but they are supposed to be registered, and either the dogs are called off before they kill the fox, or the dog's just track a chemical scent that was laid down in advance. However foxes are still killed. Either the events are not registered or the club takes the defense that they tried to call the dogs off, but the dog's didn't listen. The problem with enforcement, is that collecting evidence and prosecuting offenders often costs about 300,000 pounds sterling and the fine, when convicted, is only 6,000 pounds sterling. Politicians and Voters are on both sides of the coin. It's immoral and should be stopped but stopping it is ineffective and costs too much.

Steeple Chase
The Steeple chase came after the fox hunt was over. Ancient churches were always the tallest building's on the highest ground in any city or town. One of the dudes in the field would say, "You see that steeple off in the distance? Last one there, has to buy the beer.". Then they would race by the shortest path possible to try to be the first or to avoid being the last one there. This would involve jumping hedge rows, fences, shone wall's and creeks.

National Hunt Race
Usually, to qualify to participate in a national hunt race, a horse needs to have participated in at least four fox hunts in the previous year.

National Hunt races can have events that are run on either flat ground, over hurdles, or over obstacles (called a Steeple Chase).

The Irish are known for being the best trainers and as a result, they usually have the best horses, and the best Hunt races. They have been doing it the longest and still have point to point races like they did in the old days. From the steeple in one town to the steeple in another town, over land that has always been farmed land.

The Hunt Race season is in the cooler month's, probably to keep the horses cool, since they are working so hard. It runs from October through April.

A Hunt racing horse, is very different than a track racing horse.

Track race horses

Usually have all of their reproductive organs and therefore breeding a World Champion brings in a lot more predictable profit than racing it does. Track Race horses usually only race for about 3 years, before they are either put out to stud or replaced by the next hopeful. Track horses serve only one purpose and spend most of their time in stables near the track. Track horse's carry very small jockey's, since weight is a big factor in that type of racing.

Hunt race horses

Usually are geldings (male castrated horse). Therefor they cannot be bred and usually race for seven years or until they are no longer competitive. Because they are around for so long, many people have a favorite horse that they follow and back for whatever reason it is, that people do that with sports figures and celebrities. There is more of an emotional connection.

These horses spend most of their time outdoors on country estates and are also used for purposes other than racing.

Hunt race horses are accustom to carrying heavier weight and hunt races are usually handicapped races, meaning that the better the horse, the more weight it is required to carry. This even's out the field a little, which also entices a person to get personal with just one horse. Yea, he's having a difficult year this year, but I think he'll make a comeback next year.

The Grand National Course

The race length is about 4.25 miles (6.9 km) long, over 30 fences. See the photo blog for pictures of several of the better known fences. Many are named after a significant historical event that happened there (covered in the photo captions). One fence was a stone wall, until it was replaced by a fence (for the horses safety), that has the same size and shape as the stone wall had.

Modern fences are small hedge rows stacked high with loose spruce ferns. That is supposed to be easier on the horses, however purists argue that it is easier to lay back and jump later after the ferns have been knocked over by leading horse's, which changes the race strategy in an undesirable fashion. They believe that ability should be a bigger factor than strategy.


There is a reason that races are held in they way they are and not on paper. Cause looking at all of the paper facts that are available and predicting, doesn't always match the actual outcome. This is the basis of all betting games.

I didn't gamble at all, but it seemed to me like betting is through individual bookies, who might have different odds. Not sure how it is done in the US these days, but in the old days, there was one set of odds, and the track ran all of the betting. Judging by the brinks truck that collected all of the cash at the end of day, I can safely predict that the favor usually goes the tracks way.

In a handicap race, anything is possible, but usually how well a horse has done in the past counts a bit and how well they have done recently counts a little more. Many spectators follow a horse, so they know a bit about not only that horse, but the others that it has raced against. People usually come to this race, ready to put some money down on, based mostly on their own personal feelings.

My History

I spent a bit of time with my grandparents on my dad's side of the family. My grandmother on that side, was 16 when she gave birth to my dad. In those days, teenage pregnancy was taboo. She lived a fairly difficult life, moved out when she was 17 and gave my father, to her mother to raise. My dad was raised by his grandparents and seldom saw his birth mother, for whatever reason that is the way it turned out.

My dad's real father (my blood grandfather) was a musician. He owned a bar, that I was told was a dive, and he only visited our house once in a very long while, usually to talk about himself. My mom didn't like him nor the the influence he might have on her children. He was a heavy smoker and boozer. Actually he had a good influence on me. I never smoked very much, cause I remember going to visit him in the hospital after his tracheotomy, and his drinking had a negative effect on me. I didn't really start drinking until I was about 25, other then an occasional bout in my early 20's, when I was in the Navy. Mostly because of being exposed to his drinking. Most of the family on my dad's side was fairly tough. I'll save the uncle Woddy stories for another day.

My Grandmother had a fairly difficult time with the second man she was married to. He was about as tough, manly, opinionated, and voice-tress as men can get. Another good influence for me. I knew I didn't want any of those traits. I do have them from time to time (even though we don't share any blood), but I attempt to curb them or overshadow them with good traits.

Gramdma earned a living as a seamstress when young, but by the time I knew her, she was a clothing buyer for Carlisle's (I think that was the name). It was an upscale woman;s clothing retailer in Ohio and maybe other states, that was either purchased or went out of business, after she had retired. Grandma Dutchy made road trips to New York City, to decide which clothes Carlisle's would retail.

Funny, but I don't even remember her real first name. I always called her Grandma Dutchy. Dutchy was her nickname, because she was Pennsylvania Dutch (German). She made me some handmade shirts that were beautiful. Way better quality, design, and color than anything I had owned, that was store bought. Tailor made fit too, and they worked with either dress or casual wear. When I was a kid, I wore them often. She also hand made a quilt for me. She made a different quilt for each of her grand children, but mine was last and best. Her eye for color was perfect (my ex-wife also had a great eye for color, which I admired). That quilt is still one of my prized possessions, mostly because of the person it represents. It could be a piece of crap, and it would still be special to me.

For her last husband, she hit the jackpot. My grandfather John, but not by blood, had a great sense of humor (meaning it closely matched mine). We were always laughing. He was a finish carpenter by trade. I saw some of his work, and it was pretty damn good. I knew him when he was late in his career and he didn't like to use tools outside of work. But when I used wood working tools around him, he always encouraged me to take up that trade. When I knew him, most of his work was finish carpentry at very large mall's that were being built in North Eastern Ohio at that time. He was 20 years younger than my grandmother and he had lots of positive influence on me. I don't think he had any children of his own. If so, I don't remember him talking about them.

Later in life (after he retired) and grandma had died, I still spent time with him. We made wine together. We would go to a vineyard, pick the grapes, take them home, clean them, crush them, nurse them through primary fermentation, then bottle it, and put it away for a year or more. Just an OK tasting wine, but the comradery of getting the fruits of our labor, was extra special. He liked to give it away as presents. I liked to drink all of mine.

He and a buddy and made lots of different candy at Christmas that was very high quality. They would spend several days, just cooking and hanging out. Many years after grandma had died, he found girl friend that was really nice. They golfed a lot together, I think they talked daily, and she cooked for him once in a while. He always had a big smile, when we were on the way to her house.   

I spent a few month's with them one summer. I was around 12 years old and was painting the outside of a two story house across the street from them, that they owned and rented out. Grandpa taught me how to secure an extension ladder with a rope and anchor before climbing it. How to make home made scaffolding out of extension ladders, and instructed me when needed. I seemed pleased with my work.

Grandma painted the windows and shutters after I removed them and she way overpaid me for the job that I was doing. Plus we took two hour long lunch breaks and sometimes we would just stop at lunch and take the rest of the day off. She over feed me, and then we would play card games. Grandma taught me the value of working hard in the morning, then taking a good long lunch break and relaxing.

I also observed that Grandpa was a man of distinct patterns. About 15 minutes before he got home from work. Grandma would get out, one shot glass and one beer glass, Place them on the table, at the spot that was his designated spot. Then I would get the instructions, "When grandpa gets home from work, don't say anything to him at all. Not a single think, just sit and be very quiet, until he has finished his beer." When we heard the car pulling in the driveway, she would pour a shot and fill up the glass with an ice cold beer. Grandpa would come in all solemn looking and worn out. Sit down and immediately put the shot down in one quick motion, then sip his beer, which took a while. As soon as he was finished with his beer, he was all smiles, and we were all laughing at something or other. That was every single day.

If you played any game at all with my grandpa, there was always money on it. Penny, nickle, dime, quarter. Whatever you had in your pockets was good. Cribbage was his favorite, so we played that a lot. My mother was extremely opposed to gambling, to the point that I would seldom ever gamble with my own money. Grandma knew that and always bank rolled me, so it really didn't matter if I lost, but I won quite a bit, and grandma never asked for any of it back.

Every Thursday was betting day at the horse tack. There were two tracks that he liked going to. One was buggy racing and the other was horseback track racing.

Every Friday was the fish fry at their catholic church.

Every Saturday afternoon was spent at the Elk's club where grandpa would socialize and gamble with his friends. Grandma liked the pull tab (a change game like slots only on paper, and you pulled the tabs to reveal the fruit), gambling that they sponsored, so we played that a lot of that, with her money. We were fairly lucky, or so it seemed to me. I probably only kept track of the winning at that age. I think I won $50 on the first every chance at that game, by getting three cherries. I like strategy games more than chance games, but I also liked pleasing grandma.

So the first time that we went to the horse track, grandpa is filling me in on how to bet. At that age, that really confused me. Way to many options, but I didn't know anything at all, about horses.

There are lots of factors for each horse and lots of different horses. Plus lots of ways to bet.

So the first bet my grandpa wanted me to place, was called a trifecta (He had to do the betting, cause I was way under age, so he just wanted me to pick the horses). Trifecta's are a really cheap wager, like $1, but you have to pick the horse that is going to come in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, in the same race, and in the correct order. Wow, that was overwhelming for me. I listened to some other people talking it over and decided on 1st and 2nd, then just picked a horse that had a cool name for 3rd.

I lucked out and won. I think the payoff was 300 to 1. So I just wanted to pocket the 299 win-fall, call it a day and leave. But grandpa was hell bent on me reinvesting it, on many more wagers.

At the same time I wagered on the trifecta, grandpa wanted me to wager on the daily double. For that, I had to pick the 1st pace horse for two different races (I think it was the 1st and 3rd race). I had picked the same horse for 1st place in both the daily double race and the trifecta. So after that race, I knew that I had a chance of cashing in on the daily double as well.

I told Grandma and he wanted me to bet big on the horse that I had selected to win the daily double in the 3rd race. He told me to place big single race wager on that same horse. He said that would raise the value of the daily double, somehow. It didn't make sense to me, I think that would have lowered it. The other problem was that, before the daily double wager grandma was pushing me to hurry up and decide on a horse, cause the betting window was about to close. I think I just opened the program and had picked a horse out of the blue in the 3rd race.

I had zero confidence in that horse. Anyway, grandpa bet it for me. We ended up losing. After that, I wasn't into horse betting anymore, so I just kind of spent the rest of the money betting without any attempt at intelligence. I think I was down to about $10 ahead by the end of night, from the big early windfall. That experience took the wind out of my sails from ever betting on horses again.

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I'll see you next time.




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