Monday, 27 April 2009
The Little Horse Who Could
Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I think even people who have no interest whatsoever in racing will love this story. This is like the Susan Boyle of the equine world. As the capitalist system crumbles about us and swine flu stalks the land, it is an enchanting glimmer of light.
In Hungary, there is a little racehorse called Overdose. He does not have the sleek, killer looks of the serious thoroughbred. His breeder thought so little of him when he was a foal that he said he looked like a car with three flat tyres; the only answer was to get rid of him as soon as possible. At the Newmarket sales, Zoltan Mikoczy, a steel trader with an incurable love of racing, put up his hand for a joke, because no one else was bidding, and got the horse for two thousand guineas. To put this in context, twenty-five grand is considered cheap for a good racehorse.
Mikoczy took the horse back to Hungary, where racing, once a proud sport of emperors, was in terminal decline. Kincsem Park, the government-owned racecourse in Budapest, was a bleak windswept place, redolent of tumbleweed and smashed dreams. It was named after the mighty mare Kincsem, who won all 54 of her races in the 1870s, a record that has never been beaten. Now, talk was that the whole thing would be sold off, razed to the ground, and developed for flats. The feeling in the country at large was one of profound gloom, as the credit crunch bit, and Hungary had to go to the IMF in a humiliating plea for help. When presented with Overdose, the mood of the trainer Sandor Ribarski was not much better; his initial verdict was ‘short and kind of ugly’.
But what the hell, they sent him out to run. And he ran, and ran, and ran. He beat everything in sight, bursting out of the stalls like a rocket and just not stopping. He demolished them in Budapest, he ran them into the ground in Rome, he took them apart in Vienna and Baden Baden. No one seemed to have told him that he wasn’t supposed to be any good. He smashed track records left and right. He went straight to the front and galloped and galloped until he was eight, nine, ten lengths ahead of all rivals, leaving them labouring in his wake. The Hungarians, who had had nothing to shout about for a long time, went crazy. People said he was like Seabiscuit, another unfashionable odd-looking horse, who became a public hero in the great American depression of the 1930s. Charles Howard, Seabiscuit’s owner, once said of him: ‘See, he doesn’t know he’s little,’ and Overdose seemed to have something of that same spirit. By the time he won his twelfth race on the trot, back at Kincsem Park a few days ago, the normal crowd of a thousand had swelled to twenty thousand; the national anthem played, the Hungarian flag was unfurled, and the horse was accompanied out onto the track by an honour guard of Hussars, dressed in splendid uniforms littered with gold braid. Overdose, to the crowd’s hysterical delight, beat the course record by three seconds.
Horses that capture the public imagination don’t come along that often. You can count them on your fingers: Arkle, Red Rum, Eclipse, Desert Orchid, Phar Lap. It’s not enough to be good. In an odd, counter-intuitive way, sometimes the really good ones are quite hard to love; there can be something slightly soulless, machine-like, about their brilliance. It is too diamond-sharp, light bounces off it. There needs to be something extra, indefinable, a sprinkling of fairy-tale stardust. With Overdose, there is the enduring little guy appeal: underdog horse from underdog country takes Europe by storm. But it is also something about the way he runs. When you watch him, you find yourself smiling and exclaiming out loud. Successful front-runners are quite rare in racing; they usually get burnt off, come back to the field; winners often have to be covered up, as the parlance goes, lying back in the field until the final stages. But Overdose just charges off in front, like a wild thing, because no one ever told him the rules; he doesn’t care, he just wants to go. His stride lengthens and deepens, until it is as if he is flying. He seems, for a magical moment, to suspend the laws of physics. Maybe the joy of it is that, seeing him fly, we are reminded that the most unlikely things are possible.
For footage of the Budapest bullet, as he is becoming known, click here: