We don't have many Christmas traditions in my family. When my mother was alive she did her best to create one by consistently cooking a dinner of such awfulness that everyone around the table felt sacramentally united by the formidable task of making polite remarks as they simultaneously fought back the nausea induced by the strange gruel-like compound that stood in as Christmas pudding. (My sister once explained to me that the extraordinary viscosity of this dish was achieved by mother's failure to grasp the concept of steaming. Instead of leaving the pudding in its bowl and allowing it to warm in a saucepan half-full of boiling water, she preferred to tip the pudding into the actual water and then serve it up with a soup ladle while complaining loudly that it had once again failed "to set".)
But now we have Kempton Park. For five consecutive Boxing Days I've been found standing half-frozen in the middle of a waterlogged field, staring up at the large television screen which, in the gathering gloom, provides the only hard evidence that, somewhere in the far distance, a horse race is taking place. What keeps me going year after year is the hope of winning vast sums of hard cash.
When much of one's life is spent harrying the finance departments of precarious small magazines in the hope of extracting small cheques for services rendered in the distant past, there is something unusually exciting about watching turf accountants hand over great wedges of tenners to punters who only ten minutes before were still lining up to place their winning bets. I must, however, now face the dull truth that I am not only incapable of selecting a winning horse, but have an almost supernatural gift for selecting out-and-out losers.
My main problem is that I'm overcome by the claims of every single horse. Take the 12.40 at Kempton last Saturday. According to my paper, Grecian Dart was likely to start as favourite, which clearly meant that many people with more knowledge than me had decided that it must stand a chance. But then there was the news that Jungli had been a good third to Hidebound at Newbury and that "the Irish raider" Follow the Leader "boasts the best public form". I then had to consider the information that "Lawahik is well regarded by Charlie Mann" and that "Running Water is an interesting hurdling newcomer for Peter Hedger". (Let's face it; who am I to argue with Charlie Mann or Peter Hedger?) By the time I arrived at the Tote window I was in such a state of indecision that I found myself opting for Alhosaam on the simple grounds that it enjoyed alphabetical precedence over all its rivals. It was not a precedence that it continued to enjoy when the results were announced.
It was halfway through the big race - at about the precise point when my own selection, See More Business, abandoned the will to live - that I accidentally found myself sheltering from the rain in a small tent which housed five enormously enthusiastic musicians. Although their audience was made up of six rain-soaked punters who spent most of their time looking away from the band towards the racetrack, they were still managing to make very exciting Latin music. Their card told me that they were called Merengada. If you're looking for a band for a party, then I'd say that you couldn't go far wrong with this group. But, given my overall record of success at Kempton, I'd quite understand if you didn't want to go ahead without first checking with either Charlie Mann or Peter Hedger.