It may be difficult to do it as memorably as the Marx Brothers, but a day at the races is a pleasant way to herald the approach of summer.
From Homer's account of the chariot races in the Iliad to Damon Runyon's love affair with racetrack touts, people have been mesmerized by the contest of one horse racing against another. Early accounts indicate that settlers in Virginia had barely unpacked their horse blankets before they were challenging each other as to whose horse could get somewhere no one especially wanted to go first.
They still are. And if the traditional prize of a golden ball has long since been supplanted by a spectacular purse--and the horses themselves bring prices that leave the spectator reeling--taking a flier on a horse race remains relatively inexpensive and definitely more exciting than betting a bundle on the stock market.
Exactly how you plan your day at the races depends on whether you're visiting the track or going to one of the season's few remaining point-to-point races. In either case, it's more fun if you do it in a group.
For the point-to-point races, dress is casual and shoes should be chosen with an eye to sturdiness. Point-to-points are held in open fields and the bleachers are usually of a tentative type. You should be prepared to stumble over tree roots and sit on the ground.
Tailgate picnics are traditional and can be incredibly elaborate, with champagne in coolers and caviar on ice. But unless you're an owner or on one of the committees with access to railside parking, a tailgate picnic will make you miss the races, since most parking is in fields far from the course.
Given that the picnic must be carried for some distance, weight should be considered. Take something as simple as bread, cheese and wine or pack a shoebox lunch for each member of the group, filled with sandwiches, fruit, cookies, paper napkins and a plastic cup for wine. No elaborate baskets stuffed with glasses and plates to haul back to the car.
For a day at the track, you can be as posh as you want. Pretend it's Ascot, wear a big hat and sit in a box.
Or eat an elaborate picnic in the grandstands. Think how appropriate it would be to serve thin slices of beef rolled around horseradish sauce. Or a roast saddle of lamb accompanied by a stirrup cup. Buy a racing form either at a newsstand or at the entrance to the track, and pretend you know what you're talking about when you discuss bloodlines and claiming races.
Your appreciation of what's happening at either type race will be greatly enhanced if you can follow the horses around the course. Therefore, beg, borrow or rent binoculars. Two places which rent them:
A-Allied Rentals, 6825 Reed St., Bethesda, $8 for the first day and $5 a day thereafter, and AAA Rentals, 7459 Annapolis Rd., Landover Hills, Md., $5 a day with a $10 cash deposit.