Mr Smith goes to . . . the races

Damp turf is a sure bet

In real life, you seldom meet the sort of people you come across in jokes: actresses who are romantically involved with bishops, nymphomaniac brewers, talking dogs. But I can report the sighting of one of the most cheering characters in all tall stories, the racehorse owner who passes on a nap involving one of his own nags. This welcome figure was standing by the rails of a northern racecourse in a flat cap, a worn shirt and a ski mask of ruddiness. He looked as if he'd come from his allotment rather than the weighing room. But it emerged that a horse running in the 4.30 would be carrying this gentleman's colours, not to mention a competitive price.

Things were looking up at last. Unless you count the therapeutic shredding of my betting slips, the highlight of the afternoon so far had been a lap of honour by the local hunt. This was a curtain-raiser for a race sponsored by the Countryside Alliance. The parade of foxhounds, accompanied by trumpeting huntsmen, had been more like a threat than an advertisement, a declaration of the indomitability of field sports in those woolly parts. As a warm-up event, it also recalled the antique and faintly sinister procession that precedes a bullfight.

A hot tip could not have come along at a better time. But my new best friend in bloodstock warned me that he got the best results from his eight-year-old on a softer sod than the one beneath our feet. "We might pull him out on account of the ground," he said, "but if we leave him in, he might be worth a few bob."

Online bookmakers have been marketing themselves with spoof scratch-and-sniff perfume promotions, and the copyline that the only thing their punters miss out on is the smell of the turf. But this neglects the alluring phenomenon that the characters you encounter at the races seem only to exist in this milieu, as if it somehow conjures them up. Admittedly, the mise en scene is not wholly peopled by sunny figures like my benevolent owner. But it's the place to see men with chins spilling over their camel-hair lapels, and gamblers whose habits of smoking, drinking and outdoor pursuits combine to give them a royal flush.

At four o'clock, a tick-tack man was wearing a pair of white gloves, the better to display his repertoire of break-dancing moves against the backdrop of his reefer jacket. The darkening sky, I realised, was good for my fancy. Sure enough, it began to rain, the going turned loamy, and by the time the starter got them under orders for the 4.30, there was a beast among them who wouldn't be able to stop himself romping home by three lengths, despite the burden of my shirt.

You will understand that I won't name names. I wouldn't want loyal readers risking the subscription on my dead cert. It's got nothing to do with the odds shortening on him next time out, following heavy backing from NS households.