Saturday, 28 January 2012

Of mighty horses

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It’s been a curious week. The economic news continues to swirl about the plughole of catastrophe. The argument about benefits and bonuses rages on, with no resolution. I have been thinking about, and missing, my dad.

This afternoon though, was very simple. It was the racing from Cheltenham. In these lurching times, I see more and more why racing is a perfect sport. It requires full concentration. You have to study the form and weigh the odds. It carries great qualities in both horses and jockeys: courage, determination, a refusal to give up, a staunchness of the heart.

It is aesthetic. The animals themselves are things of beauty; watching a really good horseman do his thing is also a delight for the eye. And there is a very pure joy in watching a fine thoroughbred doing what it was bred to do.

I had two great treats. The first was a horse called Midnight Chase. He is one of my old favourites; I have won money on him before. More than that, I admire him. He is a bold front-runner, and he really loves his jumping. He hunts round at the head of the pack, sure-footed as a stag. The doubt about him is that he doesn’t quite have the turn of foot to be in the very top class, and he was up against some very classy horses in the three mile Argento chase at Cheltenham.

Cheltenham is a demanding track: it undulates wildly, which can throw even very good horses off balance, and there is the famous hill, which finds out any lack of guts or stamina.

I had a tenner on dear old Midnight Chase, almost for sentimental reasons. Off he set in front, ears pricked, somehow both steady and joyous. The other horses came at him, but today was his day, and he shrugged them off, and kept galloping strongly up the hill, not to be denied.

It was an utterly lovely performance: as bold and true and genuine as you will ever see on a racecourse. I shouted and roared. The Pigeon, as is customary, leapt off the sofa and starting barking her head off. She is not a barker; she is a quiet, relaxed dog, nothing neurotic or noisy about her. But every Saturday, when we watch the racing, and I start yelling Come on, my son, The Pidge goes into a frenzy of excitement.

If it is a particularly close finish, she starts jumping vertically in the air, all four legs off the ground at the same time, like a cartoon dog. So the race ends up with me shouting at the screen and laughing at my dog. Then I ring up my mother and we say, in unison: ‘Oh, what a lovely horse.’

Then it was time for Big Buck’s. The regular readers will know I have written of this horse before. He is an astounding staying hurdler. He has won his last fourteen races on the trot, an outrageous and vanishingly rare feat. He is a big, beautiful, bold horse. At the moment, he is getting ready for the Cheltenham Festival in March, where he will go to defend his World Hurdle crown.

The idea, at this stage, was that he would go and have a racecourse gallop. This is when the trainer, instead of just working the horse on the gallops at home, takes him to a local course, and gives him a breeze over actual racing fences. If it is a great horse like Big Buck’s, a small crowd of forty or fifty people will gather to watch.

However, not long ago, a little boy went up to the owner of Big Buck’s and asked for the horse’s autograph. (The very thought of this makes my sentimental eyes well up; the idea of the small chap with his ardent, youthful love for a racing star.) So, the owner, Andy Stewart, decided that the public deserved to see the horse, and entered him today at Cheltenham.

It was a generous thing to do. The horse is not up to his peak of fitness; there was the danger of terrible anti-climax. Essentially, he was doing a piece of work in public. If he were ever going to get beat, it was today.

I wanted him to win his fifteenth race in a row so badly I could hardly watch. I have no idea where this yearning imperative comes from. I have no connection to the horse, owner, trainer; they are all strangers to me. Yet I want it as if they were family. I think it is a salute to magnificence. It is quite unusual to see pure, untrammelled brilliance, in any area of life. I love to watch it, in all its simple glory.

So, off they went. There were some sharp, talented horses in the field. A couple of them roared off in front, obviously hoping to burn off the champion.

At one stage, Big Buck’s was ten or twelve lengths off the pace. He was lobbing along, jumping his hurdles neatly, almost dismissively. There was a terrible moment when they rounded the final bend, and he was still a long way back. He seemed to be doing nothing. I always forget that he does this in his races; he gets so relaxed he seems completely switched off, and you think he is going nowhere. Ruby Walsh shook him up a bit; still nothing. Oh God, I thought, today will be the famous day when Big Buck’s gets beat.

Then, suddenly, the mighty engine roared into life. It’s a fascinating thing to watch. It’s not a wild burst of acceleration, as some horses show when they come from back in the field. It’s a smooth, sustained unfurling of pure power. It’s like a Rolls Royce.

It’s not so much that Big Buck’s appears to be going forward, it’s that all the other horses look as if they are going backward. He reels them in, strolls past them, he is going, going, going, gathering all that beauty and brilliance into an unstoppable momentum. By the time he gets to the line, seven lengths in front, he has stamped inevitability all over the race. The monarch has asserted his class; he seems to take his place as if by divine right.

I whoop, I weep, I holler. The Pigeon leaps and barks. There is an electric burst of adrenaline and joy in the room. Everything else is forgotten. It is like a little, existential gift.

We go out into the gloaming and look at the hills, blue in the fading light. Everything is quite still. I replay the race in my head. I feel amazingly grateful for the high gloriousness of a really, really good horse, in his pomp. I am fortunate to have witness such a stirring sight.

I don’t believe in afterlives. But since I am in a magical mood, I wonder if, somewhere, my old galloping father is smiling.


Pictures of the day, in the blue afternoon light:

28 Jan 2 28-01-2012 17-11-53

28 Jan 2 28-01-2012 17-11-59

28 Jan 3 28-01-2012 17-12-04

28 Jan 4 28-01-2012 17-12-27

28 jan 5 28-01-2012 17-12-35

28 jan 6 28-01-2012 17-12-41

28 Jan 8 28-01-2012 17-13-03

28 Jan 10 28-01-2012 17-16-04

And talking of magnificent things of beauty:

28 Jan 14 28-01-2012 17-13-09

28 Jan 15 28-01-2012 17-13-14

The hill:

28 jan 15 28-01-2012 17-12-45


PS. Apologies for wild switches in tense. This is the kind of thing I tell my writing students not to do. I get so excited when I write about the racing that all grammatical rules go out of the window, and I'm too tired now to go back and correct the thing. I know the Dear Readers will understand. It is the literary equivalent of throwing one's hat in the air, which the crowds today at Cheltenham literally did.


  1. I believe Pigeon ruffled her white muzzle a bit, jumping up and down. I'm deep into a book about the jumper, Snowman. I knew nothing about horses before, but that narrative and yours make thee horses exciting.

    1. Joanne - love the thought of the ruffled muzzle. :)

  2. Sigh. No one--and I mean no one--writes about racing the way you do. Thank you.

    And LOL, the image of The Pigeon barking and 'applauding' the performances will always make me giggle.


  3. Bird - what a lovely thing to say. Thank you.

  4. Thanks to this posting I feel that I have a little better understanding of horse-racing. Only been twice, and it was here in Hong Kong where I enjoyed "the poor peoples section" (as I call it) more than the grander side. I have to get more familiar with the horses and their jockeys to get anything out of this. "Poor peoples section" is only a pound to get in to, one can pay a little extra to get a seat or stand in the beer-tent for the evening. It is considered a good night out, but most people like me have no clue about the horses. Erika

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