Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Warning for length. You might like to sit down with a nice cup of tea before reading this, as I seem to have gone on a bit.
It’s been a long week. I took the Pigeon back to the vet again this morning. He looked at me very gravely: ‘She has had a very, very serious illness,’ he said. He does not want me to dance off into the sunset, thinking everything is suddenly fine. She is still muted and sore; she must go on a special diet and have rest and care and attention. I do not yet think we are quite safe, but her nose is once more wet, and the tail does wag.
I need something to take my mind off it all, and so do you, the dear readers, so for a special Friday treat, I am going to tell you a shaggy horse story. Even if you have no interest in matters equine, I think you might like this. It makes me think of the Rudyard Kipling line, the one about meeting triumph and disaster, and treating those two imposters just the same.
Some of you may remember that I wrote a post a couple of years ago about the Hungarian wonder horse, Overdose. His story was a lovely one. He was a cheap, nothing sort of horse, bought as a joke, who went on to win thirteen races in a row. What was particularly touching was that when he started racing Hungary was on the skids. There was terrible economic hardship, and the country was deeply demoralised. Kincsem Racecourse, the last remaining track in the whole of Hungary, was in danger of being sold off. By his twelfth race, Overdose had captured the heart of an entire nation: he brought a crowd of 20,000 to Kincsem, where he smashed the course record by three seconds, amid scenes of unbound euphoria.
As with any fairy story, there must always be the knockers. What has he beaten? people started to say. It’s all very well trundling round these European tracks in Germany and Italy, but what would happen when he came up against the ‘smart stuff’, as his breeder put it, in England? Two years ago, his trainer was ready to take up the challenge, and send him to Haydock, but he was withdrawn at the last minute. Fate had struck a ruthless blow: he had damaged a hoof. Then, it seemed, he got laminitis, which is a horrid disease, and can finish a horse off for good. He was away from the track for fifteen months, only to come back in triumph at Bratislava. But then, at the end of last season, he got beat into a humiliating seventh at Baden Baden, and it seemed that perhaps the dream was over.
It quite rare for flat horses to train on. Mostly, they hit their peak at three. If they are very good, owners often do not want to risk them running as four year olds, because if they decline then their stud value is trashed. To bring a horse back from laminitis, after a fifteen month layoff, is extraordinary. To do it at this advanced age is quite remarkable. When he was beaten at Baden Baden, Overdose was five. Surely it must be the end of the road.
Yet, in April this year, he was back. He demolished the track record at Hoppegarten in Germany, ‘leaving scorch marks on the turf,’ as the Racing Post reported. But, ominously, it also pointed out that he had beaten only ‘modest rivals’. Finally, the moment of truth was coming. He was headed to Haydock in May, where he would meet serious horses, for, some would say, his first great test. My mother was very excited. She rang me up to remind me to watch. Would the Hungarian bullet silence all the doubters?
It was the most terrible damp squib. He was not disgraced, but he ran a tame seventh. I turned off the television with a heavy heart. I felt sad for the horse, sad for the people of Hungary. It was also just after my dad died. My mother called: ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘Not very good for cheering you up.’
I did not expect to see Overdose again. He was six, he had been away from the track for 22 months of the last two and half years, he had suffered injury and disease. I would have to go back to the Youtube and relive those great victories of 2008 and 2009, when people threw their hats in the air and commentators shouted themselves hoarse and Overdose romped over the turf as if he were going to a party.
And then, suddenly, there he was at the Royal Meeting at Ascot. I had not watched the racing this week, I was too taken up with the poor Pigeon, and the constant trips to the vet. So I turned on the iPlayer last night, to catch up, only to find that Overdose was running in the King’s Stand.
They must be joking, I thought. The King’s Stand is one of the top contests in the racing calendar, at the finest gathering of thoroughbreds anywhere in the world. It is worth £300,000: vastly more than Overdose has won in his entire career. Surely Haydock had proved that while he could beat medium-quality horses in Europe, when it came to the top flight, he was outclassed? On top of this, that race was only three weeks ago. He was a bashed-up six-year-old; they could not ask him to come out again so soon. It must be some ghastly vanity exercise, so his owner could put on a top hat and swank about in the Royal Enclosure. I felt quite cross. I did not want to see my lovely little colt get tailed off, or worse, break down.
He did not win. Of course he did not. But you know what? He finished a flying fourth. He was a mere length and a quarter behind the winner: a handkerchief could have covered the first four. It was an absolute triumph. The little horse from nowhere, who cost only two thousand guineas, had, after all those setbacks, run a blinder in a Group One race, at Ascot, against a huge field of some of the best horses in the world. The mockers can pack up their things and go home.
It was not quite the perfect fairy tale, but it comes close. This gallant creature can claim his place proudly in the top rank. The people of Hungary can hold their heads high. Of his eighteen starts, Overdose has won fifteen. He has provided some of the most thrilling spectacles I have ever seen in racing. He never stops trying. I love him as if he were my own.
Here he is at Hoppegarten this year:
And here, on Monday, at Ascot, the little tinker:
And here are a couple of pictures of him for your Friday pleasure:
(Photograph by Frank Sorge at Racingfotos.com.)
(Photograph from Sportinglife.com.)
And here are some of an equally beautiful creature, my Pigeon:
Looking out over the burn, very happy to be home:
She was holding her head up and sniffing the air, as if to remember what it was like, after 36 hours stuck in dog hospital:
But we are taking no chances, so now she is back in her nest of blankets:
And a couple of garden photographs, since we have not had any of those for a while:
A lovely new phlox:
The astrantias, seen over the garden wall, looking south:
A most elegant delphinium:
Thank you again for all the dog love. You have touched my heart.
And now I am going to make like an Italian mamma (whom I understand from the dear readers really do do the kind of cooking that I imagine) and make the patient some chicken broth.
Have a happy Friday.
PS. Just in case any of you can stand to read another word, after all that verbiage, the original post about Overdose is here.