Friday, 17 February 2012

A rather surprising Friday; or, a shaggy horse story

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Now, Dear Readers, I hope you are sitting comfortably. I am going to tell you a very, very naughty story.

I have had an amazingly busy day. Several rather marvellous things happened, which have made me feel as if I am turning some kind of corner. You know that thing where you feel as if you are metaphorically dragging your feet, wading through mud? You bash on and bash on, and it’s not hideously awful, or even anything especially specific to complain of, but you are struggling very hard to see the light? It’s been like that for a few weeks.

Suddenly, today, it was as if the dusty pane of glass through which I was seeing the world was given a glorious, spanking clean. Some existential force got out the Windolene, and now the view is clear and glittering. I am not so wet behind the ears to think that this means everything from this moment on will be glorious, but I feel a sense of hope.

As all this was going on, I remembered that there was some really good racing this afternoon. My racing day is usually Saturday, when I sit with the Racing Post, and examine the form, and ring up my mother and make her tell me about the glory days of Arkle. I put my punting boots on, and channel the spirit of my dear old dad, who was a Saturday racing man to the tips of his toes.

Last Saturday’s meeting at Newbury was frosted off, so they ran the races today instead. The main feature was Long Run, who is a horse I wanted to watch, since he shall be the main rival to my beloved hero, Kauto Star, in the Gold Cup in March. I saw that, and it was interesting and fine. Long Run ran well and won, but I still think the mighty Kauto might have the measure of him. That is my dream, and I am sticking to it.

Then, there was a fascinating hurdle race, a trial for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. There was a really nice horse called Zarkandar running, and I fancied him a lot. I took a quick look at the form, but I had work to do, and errands to run, so I could not spend much time on it.

I called my mother: ‘I like that Zarkandar,’ I said. ‘But I’m not going to have a bet.’

‘Quite right,’ said my mother, who is always rather relieved when she hears me say that. I think she has memories of my father gambling away the housekeeping money.

Then, I have no idea why, perhaps because of the good day and the corner being turned, I had a rush of blood to the head, and put on forty quid. This is a lot for me. I usually bet in fivers, unless I am very bullish or very defiant (usually when the doubter are out for Kauto). It was a purely emotional, instinctive bet. It is not the way you are supposed to do it, at all.

Then I was so freaked out by my intemperance I decided to go to the post office instead of watching the race. I recorded it, and thought I could see it when I came back, and was slightly calmer.

I ran all my errands. I had a lovely chat with the postmistress, whom I revere. I came home, still busy, busy. I turned on the recorded race. I was too nervous to watch, so I put the volume up very high, and did things in the kitchen. As I heard the commentary I suddenly realised two things.

One, it was one of those cavalry charge races, with a huge field of runners. Usually I avoid betting on those, because so much can go wrong, especially with a young horse. You need a tremendous amount of luck in running; there are an astonishing amount of variables.

Two, I heard the names of several horses I really liked, and that, if I had gone through the race forensically, I would have considered. It was the kind of race where I would have put myself off my initial fancy, if I had had time to think about it.

For the first couple of minutes, Zarkandar was not even mentioned. Oh, you idiot, I thought to myself. He’s obviously right off the pace, probably going backwards. It is his first run of the season, he’ll surely need the race. What were you thinking? I asked myself.

The commentator said: ‘There is Zarkandar, being niggled along.’ Being niggled along is not a good sign. It does not fill the heart with hope. Niggled along, six out, is usually a sign of absolute disaster. But then, it was the great Ruby Walsh on board, one of the loveliest jockeys it has ever been my privilege to watch, and if Ruby is niggling, he is doing it for a good reason.

Finally, I plucked up my courage, came out of the kitchen, and watched the last three hurdles. There were a couple of things romping along in front; Zarkandar was behind, boxed in, not really going vastly well. Ah well, I thought, that’s racing. Silly me.

Suddenly, Ruby picked the horse up, and they flew the second last like a bird. But there was a wall of three horses in front, and one of them was hanging in, so that there was just a tiny gap before Zarkandar. He is only five; despite being vastly talented, he is a young horse with limited experience; he has not run since last April.

It takes a really genuine, brave horse to drive through a narrowing gap like that. It had been quite a rough, tough race; things were getting hampered; poor Tony McCoy took a crashing fall at the third last.

Oh, go on, my son, I yelled. And the good horse stuck his neck out, did not hesitate, powered through the gap, and lengthened his stride to the line. In the final push, he had his head down, every single atom in his body speaking of a refusal to be beaten.

If he had lost, there would have been a hundred perfectly legitimate excuses. It was first time out; he was not at the peak of his fitness; it was not a true-run race. (They went off at a very slow gallop, which can make it difficult for some horses who need a strong pace.) The familiar expression ‘he needed the race’ would have been, quite correctly, used. There would have been not an iota of disgrace in defeat. That it was not a defeat was, in the end, a really great combination of horse, jockey, and trainer, all at their crest and peak.

Some horses are made of special stuff. They just have that magical extra thing, a sprinkling of stardust. They are the ones who make your heart lift and, idiotic and soppy as it sounds, a tear come to your eye. Or my eye, anyway. They are the magnificent ones, the ones you feel very lucky to have been alive to see. Zarkandar is still a baby, but I think he is one of those horses. And the fact he came along on this curious, hopeful day felt like a bit of a sign.

And, if I am going to be very, very vulgar indeed, the lovely fella won me a hundred and fifty smackers, which is really not bad for a Friday afternoon.


Now, for today's pictures.

17 Feb 1 17-02-2012 10-34-50

17 Feb 2 17-02-2012 10-42-18

These are the beginnings of the daffodils. I need to mark them, because I am going to the south, and they shall probably be out by the time I get back:

17 Feb 3 17-02-2012 11-43-35

17 Feb 4 17-02-2012 11-43-53

17 Feb 5 17-02-2012 11-45-53

The Pigeon has been putting on her best orphans in the snow face. This is because she has seen me packing up the car, and she is clearly convinced that she is going to be left behind:

17 Feb 8 16-02-2012 13-15-00

No matter how much I say to her 'You are coming with' she still gives me this look:

17 Feb 10 16-02-2012 13-18-16

Two hills today, for the price of one:

17 Feb 15 17-02-2012 12-49-12

17 Feb 16 17-02-2012 12-49-17

And here is an absolutely lovely photograph of Zarkandar with his brilliant trainer, Paul Nicholls:

17th Feb Paul Nicholls and Zarkandar by Press Association

Picture by the Press Association.

And here he is, powering through the gap, on his way to victory. Look how perfectly poised Ruby Walsh is:

17 Feb Zarkandar_Newbury

Picture sadly uncredited.

PS. I suddenly realised some of you may wonder why I describe my Zarkandar tale as naughty. It is because I really should not be wagering that much money in such a reckless manner, but most of all because I should be doing serious work and not watching the racing on a school day. It is at times like these that I am very grateful that my publisher is far too busy to read this blog. The secret shall remain between us.

On the road for the next couple of days, so blogging may be intermittent. I am going down to be with The Beloved Cousin and the children whilst her husband is away for work. Business as usual on Monday.


  1. Sounds like another pair of high heels is in order to properly celebrate your illicit winnings!
    Thanks for taking me along on the race...very exciting it was too!

    1. Jacqueline - what a lovely thought! Glad you enjoyed the race.

  2. Cor! I could do with some excitement in my life like that just now. Will make do with vicarious type.

    1. Lucille - I feel that if I can give my Dear Readers a tiny jot of vicarious excitement, then my work is done. It has been a funny old few weeks, but the lovely horses really have been lifting my heart, and I'm so glad they touch yours too.

  3. Woohoo! Bravo! I must admit that I don't always read the horse-racing posts (shame on me) but this one had me scrolling down the page line by line as the tension rose. Instinct is a marvellous thing; I only wish that I could trust mine the way you do yours. Loved the fact that you didn't dare to watch the race live! Glad to hear that things are looking brighter for you and hope your trip south goes well.

    1. Jennifer J - what a lovely comment. I love how you switch the trusting the instinct thing into a wonderful positive instead of a rather dodgy and reckless negative. I shall carry that thought with me as I drive down the M6.

  4. Tania ~ you had me glued to the edge of my seat! What a beautiful horse Zarkandar is with such a power of determination. You placing your bet was refreshing. Not over thinking it in the moment and just doing it (something I need to work on)! Have a good trip. ~Tammy

  5. Tammy - so glad you liked the post. I always worry a bit when I bang on about the racing. But he IS such a beautiful horse, and I hope a champion who will be with us for a while.

  6. An exciting race! Will that become a field of blooming daffodils? How long they must have been spreading.

    1. Joanne - it will be a great long avenue of daffs. My clever sister planted the bulbs years ago, and we see more each year. It's a real spring treat.

  7. Love it! And you didn't say right out, but perhaps, if all goes right, you have a young 'un to be your standard bearer when Kauto finally goes off to lounge on a beach with a gin tonic.

    Must admit that after reading about Nicholls in your blog, I've taken to watching vids of his barn on Youtube and when the Racing Post does its visit there each year. What talent (his horses for sure, and he must have some too or they wouldn't all be so good). . . Love it when a horse has the pure guts to power through a small opening ~ how can you not like them when they try so hard, for no other reason than to come home first?

    Thanks! Definitely an upper.


    1. Bird - Paul Nicholls is very talented indeed; he also has a really good team around him, and he always thanks them publicly after a big win, which is very touching. One of the amazing things about Kauto Star is simply that he has been kept sound for season after season. Admittedly, they always say good horses are sound horses, but Nicholls does seem really to nurse his horses and that is a great skill in itself, and something for which I truly admire him. Love the thought of you watching the stable on the YouTube: the miracle of the internet. :)

    2. So glad you talk about what you love. It's great fun learning more about steeplechasing. And it is always wonderful to see a trainer who can take care of his horses with that kind of skill. Thank you!

      PS Best video, in my opinion, was the one where Kauto Star and Master Minded were out for a work, just bowling along through the countryside. It wound up with Kauto, standing quietly in his stall with his lad. Love his eyes.


    3. Bird - so glad you noticed the eye. My mum always says he has the look of eagles. It's what she says Arkle had. It's the sign of a real champion, a once in a generation horse.

    4. >> once in a generation horse << Speaking of life's gifts . . .

      I'll shut up now. You must have to pack. ;-)


  8. Tanka what I like is the exuberance of this happening on a so-called school day; how wicked that sounds! But it is half term; at least where I live it is. I'll look out for Zarkandar from now on.

  9. Sorry about your name, really don't know how that happened.

  10. Is it me, or does the marking on Zarkander's face look like Scotland?

    Also - THE PICTURE OF THE FENCE WITH THE TREES. GAHHHHH! Too gorgeous for words!!!!

  11. i LOVE reading your racing accounts; it feels as if I'm right there, right then...
    As for racing in general, as much as I love horses, I couldn't win a wager if there was only one runner in the race...So I also love that you/ Zarkander scored big time on this.

  12. The Hub and his bro used (in a previous life) train race horses for two stables. They has a theory that some horses are just born with a competitive streak, some have an innate sense of occasion, some just love the racing crowds, and sone just love galloping as fast as they can whenever they are let. They reckon if you get several of these gifts in one horse, and train him/her right, then you have a winner because the horse just adores racing. Myself I think its magic watching horses gallop, and like you say, some horses have an extra sprinkle of magic to them.

  13. I know absolutely nothing about horses or racing but you always evoke a picture of Eliza Doolittle when you write like this!

  14. This story reminds me of an early tale from my parents marriage.

    My Grandmother had laways claimed a ham was cheap, so my mother had given my father 50p to make a bet and then goen to buy a ham for my Grandmother visiting. The ham turned out to be very expensive and took up all the housekeeping money they had.

    Fortunately my Dad had pciked well with his bet, got a win on long odds and it paid for the family food for the month. Since then he has always been allowed to bet as he likes as one time his bet saved the bacon!


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