Posted by Tania Kindersley.
(Rather long stories, I am afraid, so I recommend sitting down with a nice cup of tea.)
Racing is where I grew up. Even though my dad is long retired, his name still lives large on the racecourse. In some ways, it feels like home to me. I know the language, and what is not said. I know what the expressions on those faces mean.
This week is Aintree, the last big meeting of the season. Now there is just the Whitbread at Sandown, which was Desert Orchid's mighty stamping ground. (I shall never, ever forget the sight of him, bright white in the blazing sun, skipping round those three miles as if he were going for a schooling canter, jumping for fun.) Then these great Corinthians go out for their long summer holiday, to let the scars of battle heal.
It comes very quickly after Cheltenham, and some of the champions come back, to see if they can retain their crowns. It's a tough thing to ask of a horse. Cheltenham really takes it out of them. Not only are they up against the very best of their peers, trained to the minute, but the course itself is famously demanding, with its turns and undulations, and the notorious hill, which can break a horse's heart. To come out of that, and return only three weeks later, again in top-class company, is a real test.
Yesterday, a glorious animal called Big Buck's made it look easy. He is a wonderful rangy creature, so dark a bay as almost to look black, shining with breeding, in his pomp at eight years old. At Cheltenham, all the talk was of the young pretender, a small, whippety grey called Grand Crus, coming to take on the champion. Big Buck's dealt with him that day in March, and stormed home up the hill. Yesterday, the question was: could the places be reversed? Big Buck's was going for his twelfth straight win over hurdles, a quite extraordinary feat. Even for a horse as brilliant as he, it seemed an awful lot to ask. Perhaps this would be the younger grey's moment in the sun.
Off they set, the rematch to be played out in the dazzling spring sunshine. Grand Crus stalked Big Buck's round the first circuit. Halfway through Big Buck's stared shaking his head about. For a terrible moment, I thought something was wrong, that he had broken a blood vessel or shed a plate or something. Afterwards, I decided he was shaking his head in boredom, as if to say, Come on, this is too easy. Because when they came into the final furlongs, and everything else was being shaken up and asked to quicken, and poor Tom Scudamore was scrubbing away at Grand Crus, who was answering with everything he had, Ruby Walsh was sitting stock still on Big Buck's.
The horse, without needing any signal from his jockey, merely lengthened his stride a little. He pricked his ears. He strolled to the front. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. It was so smooth and effortless it was as if he was on invisible rollers. The other animals were flat to the boards; Big Buck's was just cantering along as if he were at home on a Tuesday morning. Ruby still did not move. He did not even have to ask the horse the question. There was no question to ask. Afterwards, someone said: it was as the horse was laughing at them.
Just before the line, as if to show that he was there for a reason, Ruby gave Big Buck's a little tap on the neck with his stick. It was more a salute than anything else. The mighty streak of black, half a ton of pure brilliance, flashed past the post five lengths in front, to the awed delight of the crowd. It was majestic. It was dismissive. It was one of the most complete, extraordinary, outrageous performances I have ever seen on a racecourse. The crowd went mad. Ruby allowed himself a little smile. The horse lifted his handsome head to look up at the stands, who had risen to him. The king was in his counting house.
I sat, my mouth open in cartoonish amazement. I called my mother.
'I've never seen anything like that,' I said.
'Well,' she said. 'I'm a lot older than you, and I don't know if I ever have, either.'
'I'm, I'm, I'm…' I said.
'Speechless?' she said.
'I am SPEECHLESS,' I shouted.
Two races later, another fascinating story was about to unfold. There is a boy of sixteen called Willy Twiston-Davies who has just started riding in steeplechases. He is a thin, slight fellow, who looks rather younger than he is. He is so light that he has to carry four stones of lead in his saddle to make the weight. His slender legs look barely strong enough to hold onto a charging racehorse filled with oats and ambition. At Cheltenham, he rode his father's horse, Baby Run. They were cruising along in the lead, when Baby Run put in a short one at the second last. The horse propped on landing, shooting poor Willy straight over his head.
U for unseated is the thing all jockeys dread. It's one thing if the horse falls, but if the rider comes off that is always going to feel like awful, amateurish humiliation, even though everyone knows it can happen to the best of them. One minute, Willy could practically see the finish, a wide unbroken sward of green, with nothing in front of him; the next moment, he was arse up on the hard turf, as the field thundered past him. His dream was over, finished in bathos in front of a capacity crowd. There was an awful picture of him being led away in tears, some kind gentleman putting a tweedy arm about his thin shoulders. I remember thinking: they are not tears of pain, but of absolute rage, at himself. I know that kind of fury. He will have been re-running that damn race in his head every day since, thinking: if only, if only.
Yesterday, it was time for Willy to show them all. He was riding Baby Run in the Fox Hunters', a mini Grand National for amateur riders. It is run over the big Grand National fences, but is in some ways almost trickier, because it is two and a half miles instead of four, and so the horses go much faster, which can lead to mistakes. Some horses love those old fences; they take to them like ducks with water. Some take one look and think: what the hell is this? And: no, thank YOU. Baby Run loves them. He is a beautifully balanced old-fashioned sort of a horse, and he hunts round in front, not a bother on him.
Willy, to his absolute credit, gave Baby Run a perfect ride. He sat very still, close to the horse, trusting him completely. Stillness is a great talent in a jockey; the master practitioner of it is Ruby Walsh. It's a lovely thing to watch. The horses love it, because they don't get distracted by someone scrambling about on their backs, booting them into their fences.
Baby Run cruised round, and, going into the elbow, was happily in front. The fairy tale will come true, I thought. I was yelling at the television: COME ON WILLY. (I do not know what the neighbours must have thought.) DON'T FALL OFF, I bawled. The dogs were barking their heads off, as they always do in big races. But then, looming up behind, came Patrick Mullins, also riding for his dad, a tough Irishman twice Willy's size, his horse full of running.
Oh, no, I thought. He's been in front too long. The terrible, treacherous long run from the last fence at Aintree has seen defeat snatched from the jaws of victory since time immemorial. Horses, tired after jumping those vast fences, lose their stride, start wandering around, and the damn post just won't come in time. Willy would have to ride for his life.
He leaned down over the horse's neck, squeezing every last inch of speed out of him. He did not panic and start waving his stick about, as many an older and more experienced amateur would. He kept the horse straight, digging deep. He must have felt Mullins at his shoulder, gaining on him with every stride. COME ON WILLY, I screamed. I was on my feet, roaring at the television. The dogs were now not only barking, but jumping up and down. If we could have picked up Willy Twiston-Davies and carried him over the line, we would have.
For once in its life, the post did come in time. A sixteen-year-old schoolboy and his brave horse won by three-quarters of a length, making history in the April sun. I cried tears of joy.
Here are some pictures for you.
Willy Twiston-Davies and Baby Run:
(Picture by Action Images.)
Going over Beecher's Brook, beautifully negotiating that severe drop:
(Picture by Alex Livesy for Getty Images.)
That boy just had the greatest day of his life. He said, simply, of his horse: 'I love him'.
Here's another fellow who knows about loving a horse, but he will not be going back to school next week to finish his O levels. The divine Ruby Walsh on the magnificent Big Buck's, just jumping for the sheer joy of the thing:
For all his natural ability, Grand Crus can't keep up:
(Picture by the Press Association.)
The moment of triumph:
(Picture by Matt Browne for Sportsfile.)
(Picture by Getty Images.)
And now, my darlings, I am very naughtily taking the day off. Do not tell my agent. But it's another great day of racing, and sometimes you have to say sod 'em if they can't take a joke. I am going to read The Racing Post and eat cheesecake.
PS. I have a little dream for today. I want to the lovely Master Minded to come back to his rampant best and remind us why he was once the best horse in training. The glory days when he, like Big Buck's, used to laugh at his opponents are a memory now. But he is another horse I love, and I don't turn away from beloveds just because they have a bad day now and then. So I dream my little dream. It will almost certainly not come true, but then, that's racing. My dear old dad can tell you all about that.
And talking of which, here is my dad, in his glory days, some time in the early 1960s:
PPS. One final thought about Willy Twiston-Davies. I think he will go on to be a great jockey. My mother said, after the race: 'He is a real horseman'. It's a subtle distinction; it's more than just riding well. It's knowing horses in your bones. It's the complete package. I think Willy is the complete package.
And now I really am stopping, because I must put on some bets. My tip: if Mon Parrain takes to the fences, I like him for the Topham. Go Ruby, go.