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All the world loves a flutter

  • Story Highlights
  • Racing has an electricity that is provided by few other sporting contests
  • In Britain, racing takes place at 59 courses around the country
  • As a national sport in UK, all age groups and social classes enjoy racing
  • Popular jockeys have become international stars and household names
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From Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- There is no sporting spectacle quite like horse-racing.

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John Egan on Dont Dili Dali (middle) in action during the 2007 Glorious Goodwood meeting.

Watching the field thundering down the hill to Tattenham Corner in the Epsom Derby.

The jockeys' bright silks glint in the sun. The horses -- nostrils flaring, competitive instincts at maximum revs -- eyeballing each other around the final turn.

Man and beast strive together, every corpuscle of the crouching rider's body devoted to imparting more forward momentum.

Soon they are engulfed in a wall of sound as the crowds in the grandstands or on open-top buses inside the course cheer on their fancies to the frantic finish.

It is the same as the panama hats fly at Glorious Goodwood in July, or when the dangerously decolletaged ladies of Doncaster celebrate at the St Leger meeting in September. Racing has a magic, an electricity, which is provided by few sporting contests. It is also the friendliest of sports.

You do not have to suspend all social activity for 90 minutes. Nobody blows a whistle to stop the action on some arcane point of procedure. Everybody understands a race to be first past the post and there is the added stimulus of a flutter every half an hour on the result of the next race.

One of Rudyard Kipling's female characters once observed that kissing a man without a moustache was like eating an egg without salt. For many of us, racing without betting would be much the same.

There are plenty of pauses for refreshment and recuperation after a close finish, and there is time between the bursts of frantic activity for enjoyable interchange. "Did you win in the last? What do you fancy for the next? Do you like the look of number seven? Is number 13 a bit too much on his toes?"

In Britain at least, racing, which takes place at 59 courses spread around the country, is deeply engrained in the nation's culture and history. Only football draws more spectators over a year.

All age groups and all social classes from the Queen downwards enjoy racing, which attracts among its enthusiasts a much higher proportion of women than many other sports.

You can dress up or down as you choose. Most of the female gender prefer the up, using race meetings as a kind of fashion parade where they can push things a notch or two further than they might do at any other venue.

In Britain, there is a daily newspaper devoted entirely to racing anf sports betting in general as well as two dedicated TV channels.

It also has a seasonal ebb and flow. The Classics -- the top races for three-year-old thoroughbreds -- begin with the 1,000 Guineas for fillies and the 2,000 Guineas for colts in early May. At the start of June comes the Derby, for colts, and the Oaks, for fillies, over a mile and a half. And in September, the St Leger is run over a mile and six furlongs.

But racing is also an international sport, with British, Irish and French contenders in the Dubai World Cup meeting in March, in the Breeders Cup series in America in the autumn and in the Hong Kong Festival meeting in December.

Entrants from Hong Kong and Australia have lifted big prizes at Royal Ascot and Japanese horses have contested in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

This is what has made international stars of big race jockeys like Frankie Dettori, Johnny Murtagh from Ireland and Christophe Soumillon from Belgium. All the world loves a flutter. And the jockeys who are successful in reading the mood and the abilities of the horses beneath them, and in guiding them to success, have thus become household names in more than their native lands.

As well as being CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley is the Turf columnist for British magazine The Spectator. He also writes on racing for the business broadsheet Financial Times. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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