The ns guide to self-indulgence - A day at the races

If the Tory privatisations were selling off the family silver, then Labour's first one is selling off the institution where the family spends its silver. The Tote is like so many of the great creations of the postwar state - trustworthy, slightly dull, like the old, monopoly BBC or the NHS in the days when we all trusted doctors. So the Tote is to be sold, but it surely won't really change one of the great British days out: a day at the races. This week's advice is simple: just go.

What is it about a day at the races? I asked Robin Oakley, the BBC's political editor, well known for his love of the turf. It's all in the mixture, he told me: the sleekness of the horses, the richness of the jockeys' silks, the elegance of the high society, the earthiness of the jellied-eels brigade. Truly, all life is at the races, from the toffs with their picnic hampers from Harrods to the ordinary Joes with a Mother's Pride egg sandwich queuing for a cup of tea or a pint.

As one who grew up within a few furlongs of Epsom's great racetrack, I can still remember the thrill of Derby day. I never once saw much more than a flash of colour as the horses thundered by, but the rumble of the hooves and the roar of the crowd were enough: it was an occasion. You have a much better sense of the whole race - and you can actually see who's winning - if you stay home and watch the television. But nothing beats the noise and the smell of being there.

So if you've never been, treat yourself. Go and have a flutter. There is, I promise, such a thing as beginner's luck. Or if not beginner's luck, occasional-better's luck. How else could I have picked the Grand National winner again, when I bet only once or twice a year?

And that's the trick: to limit it. Then, if you do win, you can blow it all on something really frivolous; if you lose, well, there's always next year.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning