Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jan's Big Day

“If you want to see a good race, go to Punchestown.  Their big one is on this week,” said the bartender.

I was in O’Riada’s pub on High Street Kilkenny and had been staring at a steeplechase on TV.  The event, called National Hunt Racing in Ireland, is a distance horse race with long jumps over fences and ditches.  (In early races, riders galloped from church steeple to church steeple, leaping over hedges and streams in between.)

I love to see horses in any setting, but especially when we travel.  Ron will indulge me by stopping if we spot them along the road.  But a chance to watch them race was almost too good to be true.  Our friend Karen had joined us in Kilkenny;  she, Ron and I were off to the races, specifically the 2007 Punchestown International Three Day Event and Horse Show.


That sunny April afternoon we arrived to find hundreds of people milling about, more interested in watching each other than the races.  Ladies were dressed up, from fancy hats to uncomfortable shoes, with long skirts (or hot pants) in between.  Nearby, jockeys in colorful silk jerseys warmed up their horses, whose freshly brushed coats gleamed in the afternoon sun.


We headed inside, where people were placing bets and watching the races on TV.  But I wasn’t there to bet;  I wanted to get close to the horses.


Continuing through an arch, we emerged in front of the greenest race course I had ever seen, sprinkled with jumps and surrounded by the hills, trees and fields of the Irish countryside.  Near the track, bookies sat in chairs with little umbrellas, taking last-minute bets.

We sat in the stands and watched several races, amazed by the speed and jumping skill of the horses.  But viewing them from a distance wasn’t good enough for me.  I climbed down to track level, squeezed through the crowd and got to the rail near the finish line.

A race was underway, and within a few minutes, the powerful horses leapt over the final jump and streaked by only yards away from me.  Horses and jockeys together stretched forward, muscles straining, heading for the home stretch.  I’ll never forget the sound of their thundering hooves on the grass, the smell of their sweat, their spirit and strength.  As the hoofbeats receded, I could only whisper, “Wow.”

Punchestown reminded me that when you get advice in an Irish pub, you’d better take it.  I couldn’t wait to return to O’Riada’s and tell my new friend about my day at the races.


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