At first blush, the strand race is one of a bevy of small town horse races that dot the pastures of West Cork each summer. Yet this race requires no lush fields. The strand race, you see, is run in the center of Courtmacsherry Bay. The specific date in July is fixed by the tides. It’s a rare beast: a small-town Irish affair that must execute with Swiss-style precision.
Two days before race day, the prep begins in earnest. A swarm of men in knee-high waders rush onto the course as the water retreats. They pound six-foot length posts into the sand to outline the oval while a tractor grooms the race course. The work continues for four or so hours until the rising tide licks at their boot heels, and they scramble back to shore.
By evening, boats and birds bob on the windswept water oblivious to the track submerged below. The next dawn, seaweed encrusted poles peek above the water’s surface. By noon, the grooming of the track resumes. The next day, ropes will be affixed to the poles and the race will begin.
We’ve spent July in the village of Courtmacsherry three of the last seven years and have watched the race through a veil of grey drizzle and under a brilliant blue sky. Weather has little impact on Irish life, and the race is no exception. No matter the weather, bookies set up their betting booths, horses click down the lone village street, women primp for the “best dressed” competition, the fish fryer heats his grease.
As an outsider to the village, I embrace a scene so reminiscent of my childhood in the 60s. The anticipation of the county fair, the thrill of riding a six-seater Ferris wheel perched on the bed of a pickup truck. Every year I’d beg for cotton candy and then lick my sticky fingers clean for an hour. These tiny pleasures woke me at dawn with the sheer joy of anticipation.
I’m reminded of that as the lads start to roam the streets and the atmosphere turns festive. It’s a place where happiness is still sought with sticks and balls, sheer wits and running horses.
Perhaps that’s because Courtmacsherry exists in a pre social media time warp. You’ll find no influencers here. No one convincing you that happiness is rooted in the pursuit of more. Updates to the Strand Race Facebook page are spotty. The best way to learn the date is to consult a tide chart, or better still, to phone up The Anchor Bar.
As the race start draws near, men in canary yellow vests tote buckets through the crowds to collect contributions to defray expenses. A line forms at the fish fry truck. High tea is set out for the volunteers. Jockeys weigh in.
With the bets placed and spectators huddled on the shoreline, the horses and jockeys make their way across a stream and onto the course. They mingle around the starting rope vying for position in anticipation of the drop. The jockeys time their break. Muddy sand erupts from flying hooves.
In the early races, prepubescent jockeys whirl around the oval on stubby-legged ponies. With each race, the jockeys and horses get bigger and the races get longer. One lap becomes two and then three.
Winners hug their dad’s and hoist their trophies aloft. Others sulk with mud-spattered faces. Stories are told amongst the spectators of lads who cut their teeth in local races and then propelled their success to Galway or England or America.
During an inexplicable pause in the races, a man next to me shouts, “If we don’t get ‘er movin, the horses are gonna be swimming!”The crowd laughs. No one glances at their watch. The rising tide licks the horses hooves.
This is the charm—and the magic—of a horse race run in the middle of a bay in a small Irish village. Any reliance on Swiss precision was an illusion, never the goal. The race finishes. The bay returns. The luck of the Irish prevails.
Categories: Western Europe