It’s customary at this time of year to sing, dance, feast and make offerings to the gods… Just another day then, in the office at Kelso Racecourse.
The Sun, when it appears, is low in the sky, skimming above the trees on the horizon. It’s a brief appearance, partly because there’s been a thick layer of cloud for most of the day, partly because the day is only 7 hours and 14 minutes long.
Darkness, accounting for the remaining 16 hours and 46 minutes, brings either rain, fog, or freezing temperatures (or so it has seemed over the last couple of weeks), none of which has been particularly beneficial during preparations for the Bruce Farms Scottish Borders National Steeplechase at Kelso on Sunday.
Following several days when the track has either been waterlogged or frozen, the racecourse’s team of treaders-in finally got onto the turf late on Wednesday afternoon – replacing all the divots from the previous racemeeting just before dusk on Friday. The official going description for the £50,000 feature race, at the time of writing, is “Heavy” and, although raceable, the ground is unlikely to take any further rain without becoming waterlogged again.
Unfortunately, rain is forecast, and a track inspection has been called for Saturday. It’s with a degree of trepidation, therefore, that I put forward this weekend’s selection: Flower Of Scotland, who bids for back-to-back wins in the Scottish Borders National for trainer Sandy Thomson and owner Ray Green.
It’s tempting, as the Sun disappears behind the hills, to plead for its return: to chant, dance or sing in an attempt to bring the blue skies back.
None of this is new: as long ago as the late stone-age, Neolithic-man built stone circles and burial tombs that aligned with the rising sun at the time of the Winter Solstice. For thousands of years, humans have staged elaborate ceremonies designed to appease the gods and reverse the privations of Winter. In addition to offering gifts to the gods, the Romans developed a tradition for offering gifts to each other (vouchers for the chariot races at Kelso, hospitality and Annual Membership packages, etc).
During the festival of Saturnalia, which coincided with the period leading up to the Winter Solstice, Romans would decorate their homes with wreaths and other greenery (much like the racecourse office elves who have been decorating the hospitality marquees with holly) and partake in a festival of gambling, singing, dancing and feasting. Similar traditions developed in the Nordic countries and several aspects of the Yule Festival were later incorporated into our own Christian narrative.
At times, amid the winter fog and the darkness, it can be difficult to discern the light of good things to come. That’s why it’s important to party. Whether there’s racing at Kelso on Sunday or not, we’re already planning another great event: the Festive Fling Raceday on Friday 29th December. Needless to say, there’ll be gambling, singing, dancing and feasting.
Perhaps we’ll be able to race on both dates… it’s nearly Christmas after all. Miracles happen!