When I was in Moscow recently on a journalistic assignment, I took a day off from sputniks and Khrushchev to go to the trotting races at the Hippodrome. These races are different in Russia from the ones we know—curiously enough, they are not all sulky races, the horses being sometimes ridden just like our flat races. This lends them a little extra excitement. With me I took Valia, the young and pretty girl interpreter who had been placed at my disposal by Intourist. I could have gone alone if I wished, but I felt her services would be indispensable, even though she'd never been to the races before and didn't know a furlong from a fetlock.
The Hippodrome is little more than a mile from Red Square, at the far end of Gorky Street. The first race was at one o'clock, but I couldn't leave till 1:30, and our taxi then made slow progress through the holidaying crowds in the streets. It was the day after the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and the whole city was still celebrating. Four races had been decided by the time we reached the course, but there were 12 on the program—one every 15 or 20 minutes—so I had lots of time to lose my money.
It was a brilliantly clear day. The long grandstand with its peeling yellow paint and crumbling ornamented decorations seemed to belong to the 19th century, as though it hadn't been painted or changed in any way since before the revolution. And very likely it hadn't been. There weren't many spectators, and almost all were men, most of them, it seemed, in black hats and black overcoats. In front of this peeling grandstand was the oval dirt track and, beyond it, a looming backdrop, rose the gray skyscrapers of Moscow.
Admission to the most expensive enclosure was only eight rubles—the equivalent of 80¢ at the effective rate of exchange. Cheaper stands, I had noticed, cost four rubles and two rubles. Valia and I, however, got into the best enclosure for nothing, by presenting two of the sightseeing coupons provided by Intourist before I left London.
November 10, 1958
The race cards informed me that I was attending the Bolshie Races, in honor of the "Fortieth Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution." I turned without delay to look at the list of horses for the next race. It's difficult enough, God knows, to pick a winner at the best of times, and I now found myself faced with choosing from the following:
Seeking some kind of guidance, I asked Valia the meaning of the three lines of print at the top of the page. She had to ask for help to get an exact, knowledgeable translation, and she then wrote it down for me as follows: "Fifth run. 2:10 p.m. For foal and mare of eldest age. Distance 1,600 m., 900 points (540-270-90)." It wasn't any good my complaining that the foal-and-mare-of-eldest-age part didn't mean a thing; she insisted that was what it said. (I found out later that it was a race for colts and fillies over 4 years old.) The distance, 1,600 meters, would be once around the track, 11 yards short of a mile.
I asked about the points.
"That is prize money," Valia said. "Each point is worth 80 kopecks. The winning jockey receives 540 points, so he gets 432 rubles. The second and third jockeys get 270 points and 90 points respectively."
I didn't understand why they couldn't just put down the prize money in rubles, but instead I asked, tactlessly: "And how about the owners? How much prize money do they receive?"
"Gospodin Kilbracken!" said Valia indignantly. "All horses belong to the state!"
All horses, anyway, were now lined up for the start; I relinquished the struggle for the moment and let the race go by without a bet. –ò–≥–ªa went out into a long lead, but –õ–∏p–∏–∫ who seemed to have a great many supporters, was always well placed, and swept to the front at the distance. The phlegmatic Russians didn't show much excitement, but there was scattered cheering as he neared the winning post. His supporters were counting their winnings when Ha–≥–∏–± came from nowhere and won by a neck in a very thrilling finish. There were the usual complaints all round, such as I have heard on race tracks all over the world when a favorite is narrowly beaten, and I turned my attention immediately to the vital problem of finding the next winner.
We had watched the race from the rails, amongst a group of young men who had all backed Ha–≥–∏–±. Valia now asked them for some information on the next race, which was one of the two biggest of the day, worth 1,500 points to the winning jockey. They were all very helpful when they heard I came from Ireland, with the intense curiosity about the West which I had generally found in Russia. Like true racegoers, however, they realized that the only thing which mattered right then was the next winner. My personal inclination was for –õo–≤–∫a—á, which means Clever Boy—or that's how Valia translated it, anyway. Clever Boy's rider, Master Jockey Tarasov, had a son riding in the same race, and with only seven runners I thought the Tarasovs would share the spoils. My friends on the rails, however, scouted the idea, especially a short little man in a white cap, who refused to tell me his name but who seemed extremely confident. He said it would be a pushover for –öo–∏—Ça–∫—Ç, which is pronounced "contact" and means contact. The others agreed so confidently that I asked Valia to back Contact for me: 10 rubles on the nose.
Valia, I could tell, disapproved of betting on principle, though I could see the idea fascinated her all the same. She joined the line at the pari-mutuel window rather as though she were lining up for opium. Ten rubles ($1) is the minimum stake, and I saw no signs of anything approaching heavy betting; 100 rubles would be considered a very big wager. The tote, Valia told me, keeps only two percent; needless to say, there are no bookies. I really wasn't surprised when Tarasov and son took the lead together with half a mile to go, from which point they had the verdict in safekeeping. The race went to father on Clever Boy by a comfortable two lengths from his son. The Tarasovs thus scooped 1,800 rubles ($180) between them. Contact was soon out of contact and without much difficulty finished last.
The man in the white cap was disappointed but not despondent, and informed me that the next result, at least, was completely a foregone conclusion. There were only four runners, and the winner would be –üp–∏—è—Çe–ª—å, which is pronounced "priyatel" and means Good Friend. Despite my experience with Contact, I felt I needed a good friend, and there was a regular gleam in Valia's eye when I gave her all of 20 rubles to stake. The issue was never in doubt; Priyatel won by 20 lengths or more.
A CHAMPION COMING UP
I had backed my first Russian winner, which called for a celebration, and we all went to the bar, where Valia had a mineral water and the rest of us had vodkas, and there was a good deal of backslapping and toast drinking. When the dividend was announced, I learned that I had won a grand total of six rubles. This would not even pay for the drinks. Valia said it didn't matter, however, because in the next race, according to Mr. Whitecap, there was an even greater certainty: a gray mare named B—åŒπ—à–∫a, which is pronounced "vyeshka" and means watchtower. "She is champion of Moscow Hippodrome," Valia informed me.
This time she suggested that I put on the money, perhaps because she was afraid that she might herself be tempted to bet. I did so, by holding up the appropriate number of fingers and tendering 20 rubles. Watchtower was left at least 30 lengths at the start, and was still 10 lengths behind every other runner when they passed the stands the first time around. (The race was over 2,400 meters, a circuit and a half.) However, all my friends were still perfectly certain she would win. And so, in fact, she did: Watch-tower seemed suddenly to start moving twice as fast as any other horse in the race, went straight through her field, and was soon five or 10 lengths clear. From this point there was no holding her; she went farther and farther ahead, and won by 30 or 40 lengths.
Having learned my lesson over Priyatel, I didn't suggest drinks this time. It was just as well. My winnings amounted to precisely four rubles, odds of 1 to 5, which wouldn't have paid for Valia's mineral water.
My big thrill of the day came in the next race when Jockey Second Class Olga Burdova, a buxom wench on whose talents I risked 20 rubles, drove her horse from behind to win me 127 rubles. Valia at this stage suggested we call it a day, perhaps because her desire to gamble was now becoming irresistible. I agreed; it was getting chilly and I'd only lose all my winnings.
Later I totted up my profit and loss account as we drove back to the gray city.
"I've won 87 rubles," I told Valia finally. This was not quite $9, but it seemed a major triumph.
She gave me one of her sidelong looks.
"Capitalist," she said.