Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Well, in the end it all went quite well. Having blithely offered to cook all parts of the lunch except the bird, I only shouted at my poor mother three times. Worst moment: her swish new oven would not cook the bloody potatoes. It was the kind of fancy contraption that you needed to have trained at NASA to operate. As all seemed lost, I yelled: 'Is it too much to ask to have an oven, with a KNOB, that you can turn to 190, and when it reaches the temperature the little red light goes off so you know how hot it is? Is that really too much for some people?' (You see that when I get angry I am absolutely terrifying.)
But the bread sauce was sublime, and the gravy contained an entire bottle of red wine, and all the trimmings were there (TWO kinds of stuffing, my darlings), and my sister was quite beside herself with joy that she could just roll up and eat. My niece cooked the most succulent turkey, and my stepfather rather quietly produced a couple of bottles of Chateau Latour. And the sun shone on the glittering snow all day long.
There were lovely presents this year too, beautiful and useful in the William Morris tradition. Perhaps the most beautiful and useful of all was the glorious Kauto Star, (pictured at the top), galloping all over his rivals in the King George Steeplechase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Boxing Day at Kempton is one of the great traditions in the racing calendar, and the King George is second only to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in terms of prestige. It is run over three miles and eighteen fences. To get some idea of how gruelling that is, you have to imagine half a ton of horse galloping at about thirty miles an hour over obstacles that are roughly five foot high and three feet wide, made of stiff brush, some with a four foot open ditch in front of them. The horses themselves are not tough old hunters, but fine-boned thoroughbreds, with delicate legs and hot blood and aristocratic temperaments. The jockeys, many of whom have to sweat and waste to make the weight, perch on tiny scraps of saddles, their feet supported by irons that are so light you can hardly feel them in your hand. Any number of things may go wrong - a broken blood vessel, a loose horse, a simple stumble, what jockeys call a traffic jam, where they get boxed in by the horses around them. One stride too few or too many can lead to a crashing fall at high speed. It is a sport that sorts out goats from sheep and boys from men.
Take all that, and add into it that Kauto Star was bidding to win his fourth King George in a row. No other horse has ever done such a thing. The mighty Desert Orchid did win the race four times, but not in consecutive years. So there was the weight of history, on top of everything else. I rang up my mother just before the race. 'I don't think I can bear to watch,' I said. 'No,' she said. 'I can't either.' There are very few great champions in racing, the ones that you really remember, the ones who run into a a dimension all their own. They come along maybe once or twice in a generation. Kauto Star has won two Gold Cups and three King Georges; at the age of nine, he is cantering into the same pantheon as the incomparable Arkle. The thought that, at his zenith, he might fall or fail or be brought down was too much to contemplate.
You have to understand at this point the slightly obsessive nature of the racing fan, the actual love that is felt for a truly magnificent horse. (Ruby Walsh, Kauto Star's jockey, a tough professional of many years' standing, said of the horse, on national television, after winning the Gold Cup: 'Ah, I love him anyway.') I think it is something to do with the purity of the animals themselves. Unlike other sporting stars, they do not get caught with hookers or drink too much or swear at their fans or find themselves in brawls; they do not even get paid. Unlike us mortals, they do not know or care about politics or the credit crunch or the mundane matters of daily life. They operate on a parallel plane, touching human lives, but removed from them. They run on sheer instinct, the ancient half-tamed will to lead the herd. There is something about that lifts the heart in a glorious, uncomplicated way.
It turns out my mother and I need not have worried. Kauto Star skipped down to the start with his ears pricked, galloped round the first circuit, jumping as neatly as a cat, and then, despite the flat-out pace of the front runners, picked off each horse before him without even changing gear. Ruby Walsh did not, as they say in racing, even have to ask him the question. This beautiful horse accelerated as smoothly as a Rolls Royce, jumped the last three fences with as much nonchalance as if he were out for a mild training gallop on a Tuesday morning, and beat the best chasers in the country literally out of sight. The official winning margin was 'a distance', which means it was so far that the stewards could not be bothered to count. Someone later calculated it was thirty-six lengths.
I cried. The crowd at Kempton went crazy. The horse lifted his head in victory, as if all this cheering was merely his due. Hardened handicappers said they had never seen such a thing in their lifetime. The television pundits ran out of superlatives. It was absolutely, utterly, completely lovely.