Visiting the Oaks in September is very different to the hustle and bustle of the Derby. The actual race night itself was full enough, but it seemed by comparison quiet and deserted; and I had a new sense of space and leisure in which I could take in all the details of the race night. I imagine that the contrast between the two scenes must always be pretty striking, but this year it was even more noticeable because of the drastic change in weather conditions. Another difference that forced itself on my attention was the greater prevalence of gypsies. Caravans lined the road that runs from Tattenham Corner to the paddock and the grandstand. I attributed this increased activity partly to the simple mathematical fact that, as there were fewer people present to be pestered, there must be more gypsies per head to pester them. Also, unlike the race night in June, this time I had a lady accompanying me. It was about her welfare that the gypsies were chiefly concerned. ‘Buy the lady a favour, sir,’ pleaded one merchant whose stock-in-trade consisted of hundreds of disgusting little race night souvenirs. I’d hardly even finished explaining to him that the lady would not thank me if I did – a sentiment heartily endorsed by the lady herself – when another (thinking, I suppose, that she looked hungry) suggested that I should regale her with a depressing form of fish which had the appearance of stewed brown-paper bags. This temptation, likewise, I avoided. Thank goodness, I saw no eels. I can’t bear eels at a race night; they take me back to the days when I used to learn about the Diet of Worms in my biology book – and I have hated biology ever since!
After battling our way through an army of gypsies, we had only one desire. We wanted to find a courteous bookmaker at the race night whose wealth was such that he would not mind parting with a little of it to us after the Oaks had run. I related my Derby experiences to my lady companion. She seemed, like most women in such circumstances, to rely upon some mysterious pricking of her thumbs to warn her when she found the right man. And, like so many women at a race night, she was justified in her ridiculous faith. ‘That’s my man!’ she said , and was off like a flash, I toiling after her. We both inspected the chosen bookmaker, and liked him. We liked the car he operated from, we liked the empty beer bottles arranged neatly in rows beneath his stool, we liked his wife and her friends, and we liked his race night tickets. In fact, we liked him enough to try to ruin him, if Fate so willed!
We made our bets, and then found a nice empty space on the rails nearby to watch the race from (a thing which I could not have thought of doing at the Derby). We had both backed a horse called Buttercup – I because Hotspur had spoken well of her, and the Derby had left me with a touching faith in his judgement; my companion because she had a friend whose aunt had once had a dog of the same name. When the race night begun, we gazed at each other in awe. Between us we had managed to pick out the first three horses! This was obviously too good to last. Our course was plain. We collected our winnings from the bookmaker – who remarked in a resigned sort of way that this was ‘a body blow’, and we caught the first train back to town before the gambling fiend should tempt us to less happy adventures at the race night.