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By Thomas Ough
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was forced to play second fiddle to the Tortoise Fair and Race as Corpus Christi flung open its garden for the annual event. “Open to all, students and families alike, this magnificent event is built around the centrepiece of a truly Olympian contest – tortoises from all over Oxford come together to race for victory,” as Joe Rolleston, keeper of the Corpus tortoises, proclaimed before the event. Monsoon rains, although perhaps appreciated by the shelled beasts of the tropics, could not prevent a queue to enter the college that stretched onto Merton Street.
Having filed past stalls offering snacks, raffle tickets, and even, ludicrously, tortoise facepaint, the assembled masses formed a circle around what was to be the race arena. The rain, still tipping down, could not dampen what Raph Torrance, of Lincoln College, called ‘unbridled anticipation’, with the smell of burning meat at the barbecue symbolising the baying hordes’ visceral excitement. While the tortoises underwent their pre-race stretches, a teaser for Corpus Christi Owlets’ production of ‘Edward II’ whet the appetite for the toppling of champions; Corpus JCR’s strongest tortoise, Bishop Fox, held home advantage, but faced stern competition from rivals hailing as far afield as Magdalen, who boasted the services of Oscar de la Tortoise, Univ, for whom Percy was vocally supported, and Regent’s Park, whose tortoise was an impressive 94 years of age, but, in all that time, surely had never seen such an array of tortoise talent.
The thespians having retired, race officials laid a band of lettuce pieces around the circumference of the circle of grass surrounded by the crowd – “It looks like iceberg,” commented Torrance (prospective OxStu food columnist) – to which the tortoises would race from the centre. The arena was now ready for the tortoises, whose gladiatorial entrance was heralded by thunderous applause, and the referee informed the crowd that, with the tortoises having passed their drug tests, they were ready to square off for the first time. One of the tortoises’s shells sported Diamond Jubilee decoration, an ironic tip of the hat to the day’s secondary occasion.
Once the tortoise keepers had arranged their charges, the race could begin. But, instead of a mad dash towards the lettuce-lined circle’s edge, affairs proceeded in more sedate fashion. One can only imagine what Prince Philip would have made of the entirely static Jubilee tortoise, while its listing Univ counterpart made slow, concentric circles in the middle of the field. This left the way open for Worcester’s aptly-named Zoom, who, in reaching the edge of the circle, tasted victory and lettuce as one. Zoom’s keeper, Adrian, in an exclusive post-race interview with OxStu, revealed that “this is quite possibly the greatest day of my life.” A hamstring injury had apparently put paid to Zoom’s chances last year, but, after months of training, victory was sweet. Trailing in behind Zoom were Brasenose, Corpus and Jesus, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the sidelines. The tragedy of this event is that, while the tortoises’ life expectancy is such that they will live to see many more races, their keepers, for whom the race involves such emotional investment, are much more short-lived. While gloriously entertaining, tortoise racing must necessarily carry with it a reminder of human life’s brutal transience.
Andrew Baxter, keeper of Sampras, the under-performing Christ Church tortoise, refused to eat his words after claiming on the morning of the race that his charge would “come out of his shell”. Although he had not reached the lettuce first, Sampras was, Baxter claimed belligerently, the true victor: “Sampras understands what it means to be a tortoise.” Indeed, the tortoise had, perhaps more than any other, lived up to his species’ slow-moving reputation, in this regard being “the true champion.” Putting the loss down to “slight lethargy,” fans argued that Sampras was more of a “statesman” than a high-octane thrill-merchant, claiming that his mental agility, if not physical, was enough for him to have beaten chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov at his own game.
If the other tortoises can muster more spirited performances next year, then Zoom’s crown may come under threat, and the competition itself looks set to expand, with St John’s looking to shell out on a tortoise of their own; let the summer transfer window begin. But for now, to the victor the spoils – what will be Zoom’s reward? With a beady eye not unlike that of his racer, Adrian noted the amount of tortoises trundling around his feet, and suggested that now might be an opportune time for Zoom to “find a girlfriend.” Winning races and hearts, it can only be a matter of time until Zoom leads the next generation of racing tortoises.