Exercising to exorcise excess


As the excesses of the festive season begin to take their toll, tomorrow marks the pinnacle of our indulgence. Three Irish Times writers look forward to getting out of the house and taking in some of our most seasonal St Stephen's Day activities


Maybe it's the hope of recouping some of the pre-Christmas spending that makes going to the races on St St Stephen's Day such an attractive idea, even to those not normally smitten by the sport.

If so, this is a hope that the bookmakers are only too happy to encourage. The "Holly and Ivy Brigade," as these once-a-year punters are known, are as welcome at the racetrack as Santa in an orphanage. Grateful bookies hang stockings out for their arrival, sing Oh Come all ye Faithful and the race results usually do the rest.

But like the Christmas Day swim and the Goal mile, the Stephen's Day race meeting may also be regarded as penance for some of those who attend: a form of voluntary self-punishment to atone for the shameless indulgence of the weeks before.

To this end, it's almost guaranteed to be cold. If you're a lucky penitent, there'll also be a biting wind to enjoy. And who knows, you might even get hailstones as well, to help you suffer as you leaf through what is optimistically known as the form guide, before handing your donations to the bookies with numb fingers.

Of course, it's possible that many people go because they actually enjoy the experience of Christmas racing. The chilly weather can be more than offset by the hot ports and hot beef sandwiches (and the odd hot tip) on offer at the racetrack bar. The sound of horses' hooves rattling birch fences can be best heard through the cold air of late December. And the sometimes subdued atmosphere (arising from thousands of people clapping with their gloves on) sometimes gives way to rousing cheers, as a people's favourite, such as Danoli or Istabraq, roasts the bookies.

Whatever the attraction, thousands of individuals will undergo early-morning inspections on December 26th, before being declared fit for racing.

Conditions may be soft to heavy, especially around the midriff. But as long as the tracks themselves survive the annual weather scares, crowds will throng to Leopardstown, Limerick, and Down Royal for an afternoon free of television repeats and yet another turkey sandwich.

In fact, at the first two racecourses, St Stephen's Day is just the start of a post-Christmas festival. Leopardstown's four-day affair is well established, with races such as the Paddy Power Handicap and the Ericsson Chase forming major milestones in the National Hunt season.

Sadly Istabraq will not grace this year's meeting - his narrow win last Christmas proved to be his last full race before retirement - but Limestone Lad will qualify for one of those rousing receptions after the Christmas Hurdle if he records yet another win.

In Limerick, meanwhile, the success of last year's inaugural three-day meeting has encouraged the addition of a fourth day this year. And with a Ladies' Day on December 28th (a diamond Christian Dior watch to the best dressed), and face painters, bouncy castles and clowns all week, the organisers are firmly pitching the race meeting at the whole family.

The Minister for Finance is a regular customer at Leopardstown post-Christmas, and may or may not regard the betting figures (to which he contributes handsomely) as an important economic indicator. Last year, even with the economic downturn already underway, punters at the Dublin track wagered more than €8 million in four days.

But whatever the final figure this year, it's a fair bet that thousands of losing dockets will again lend a festive look to the Feast of Stephen, as they festoon the betting rings in Leopardstown and elsewhere, deep and crisp and even.

Racing takes place at Leopardstown and Limerick from December 26th to 29th, inclusive; and at Down Royal on December 26th.

Take a Hike/Paul Cullen

What better way to work off that seasonal over-indulgence and ease a guilty conscience than by getting out for a good walk. Indeed, for many outdoor enthusiasts the festive season is more a series of walks interrupted by good meals than the other way around.

Depending on your ability and mood, these can range from short appetite-enhancing rambles on Christmas morning to serious nighttime mountain treks. In both cases, the harshness of the weather stands in direct proportion to the feeling of satisfaction experienced once the walk is completed.

What every walker dreams of at this time of year is a period of high pressure, bringing cold temperatures and blue skies. In such conditions, the ground freezes and the boggiest of mountain terrain becomes effortlessly passable.

In Wicklow, for example, mountains such Mullaghcleevaun or Barnacullia are temporarily liberated from their normal sump-like conditions as the earth turns firm and frosty and the air crisp and clean as spring water.

The prospect of a white Christmas may be unlikely, but mountaineers throughout Ireland will have their crampons ready in case the northern slopes of Lugnaquilla or Carauntoohill turn into the Alps for a few days.

Normally, it has to be admitted, the weather at this time of year is dreadful. Days are short, rain is plentiful and the chill winds blow hard.

However, the old adage that "there is no such thing as bad weather; only bad equipment" applies. Good quality boots and waterproof, breathable clothing are widely available in outdoor shops, and provide all the protection necessary against the often inclement weather.

Many walkers enjoy a light pre-Christmas ramble to work off the strains of shopping and the preparations for the holiday. On Christmas Day itself, a quick walk up a nearby hill - such as Three Rock in Dublin or Torc in Killarney, whets the appetite forfestivities to come.

Traditionally, though, St Stephen's Day marks the first emergence of fleece-clad walkers from their indoor lairs - though many of these rambles quickly divert to the nearest pub for hot drinks.

Generally, Christmas is not a period for organised walks, though there is one exception. Each year, a small bunch of enthusiasts meets outside Dublin Castle at midnight to re-enact the escape of Art O'Neill from British custody on January 6th, 1592.

This walk, for experienced and well-equipped hikers only, passes through city streets and suburbs before heading over the Wicklow mountains to Glenmalure. At 33 miles in length, with a total ascent of 3,600 feet, it's not an undertaking for the inexperienced walker.

More information on the January 6th, Art O'Neill re-enactment walk is available from Tom Milligan at tmilligan@eircom.net or (01) 2883312.

Follow the Hunt/Grania Willis

All around the country, hunting folk will be gearing up for one of the biggest social days in the calendar - the St Stephen's Day meet - but any newcomers who think they're in for some serious sport are likely to be disappointed. Numbers usually swell - along with the waistlines of many participants - to uncomfortable proportions the day after Christmas, so huntsmen are unlikely to waste the best country on a mounted field that will be feeling the pinch from the outset.

Stephen's Day meets are, generally, great occasions for catching up with all the gossip, knocking back a few "stirrup cups" as the drinks are called, wolfing down a few sausage rolls, sandwiches and Christmas cake, and then heading out on your horse with the whole lot swirling around uncomfortably in your stomach.

Horses and hounds are, generally speaking, unaware of the significance of St Stephen's Day, but the sport is usually fairly low-key. With large numbers out, it's often difficult for the huntsman or his hounds to produce much real action, although a short, sharp spin is welcome to blow away the cobwebs before the re-commencement of the seasonal revelries later that night.

Close to Dublin, the Ward Union Staghounds always get a huge turnout on Stephen's Day, with spectators on foot and in cars boosting the numbers on horseback. But the Staghounds at least have guaranteed quarry, as the so-called "carted" stag is brought to the meet and "enlarged" - in other words let out - to make a break for freedom.

That's not the case with the foxhound and harrier packs around the country, and foxes and hares are often in short supply on Stephen's Day. They quite often become understandably shy about showing their faces when a large mounted field encroaches on their territory.

Rather than making a dash for it and running the risk of hounds hurtling after him, a fox will often refuse to leave the covert, perhaps having over-indulged on the turkey dinner front himself.

But if you do get a run, make sure to edge your way towards the front, because the St Stephen's Day meetings attract the hunting equivalent of the Sunday driver and we all know how frustrating it is to be stuck behind one of those.

Up towards the head of the field, you can pick your own line over the yawning drains in Co Meath or the stone walls of Galway and Clare. The big double banks of the Scarteen country in Co Limerick or the Duhallows in Cork and the razor topped singles that the Island Foxhounds tackle in Co Wexford should all be enjoyed from the front.

Anywhere else and you run the risk of being stuck in a traffic jam and discovering, by the time you get there, that there's nothing left to jump, particularly in stone wall country where you could be faced with just a pile of rubble.

If the thought of getting dolled up in all the hunting gear, plaiting your horse and boxing it to the meet and then riding all day sounds too much like hard work, there's always beagling, but then you'll be on Shanks's Pony - your own two feet.

Beagles hunt the hare and, even though their quarry tends to run in circles, a day with the beagles is a far more exhausting proposition than riding.

But whichever you choose to do, or even if you only go to the meet to simply enjoy the spectacle, you'll certainly have earned your reheated leftovers and a tipple or two by the time you get home.