Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Well, he did it.
HE DID IT.
I know I told you of the fears and strains and nerves yesterday, but I’m not sure I quite realised how wound up I had been until I found myself bursting into shouting tears of joy and relief as Big Buck's flashed past the post.
It was a completely disproportionate reaction to a horse race. Funnily enough, I remember having the exact same thing when Desert Orchid won his Gold Cup, and Kauto Star regained his. It is what my old Irish godmother used to call ‘tears coming out at right angles’.
It’s a bit primal, I suppose. It’s about watching something above the rest, something so pure and true. It’s the sight of greatness and grit, brilliance and cussedness, glory and guts. It’s the thing when something is so far above what is normal.
Humans are used to normal; to muddle and compromise and all the little chips and scratches of which daily life is made. We don’t get perfect, hardly ever, and that is just as it should be. I don’t think life was made to be perfect, and whenever I see someone who has one which looks like that on the outside, I get a bit suspicious.
But, every so often, it’s not bad to have a fleeting glimpse of perfection.
Yesterday, Big Buck’s did something perfect.
All the superlatives and clichés may come out to dance. It was poetry in motion. It was a far, far better thing.
After the race, I went up to see Red the Mare, who had arrived from the south. The World Traveller brought the great-nieces up as a welcoming committee, and they fed her apples, which she ate graciously, from their tiny, flat palms. ‘This is your new family,’ I told her. She looked very relaxed, and very happy.
This morning, I got up at half past seven and went up to ride her for the first time in her new glen. She looked about all over the shop; the other horses galloped round the hill to greet her. She was a little startled, in this alien environment, and I was babying her a bit to start with.
Then, with the firm encouragement of the very strict Riding Expert, I kicked on and decided to take charge. Horses do not need any kind of aggression or bullying, but they do crave firmness. It makes them feel safe to know they have a boss. I suddenly realised I was not thinking like a boss, so I switched my mind-set, Red sensed it at once, and by the end, we were walking about in the shadow of the blue hills as if we had been together for ever.
I had one finger on the buckle of the reins, and she stretched her neck out, and ambled on, calm and docile as an old dog. The Pigeon scampered alongside, still a bit confused about what she clearly regards as a vast red canine.
‘Let’s just pretend you are Kauto Star,’ I said to the mare. I looked down at her little, golden neck. (She is only just 15.1, which is small in horse terms, and quite delicate, with all her thoroughbred breeding.) ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘you are more like Kauto Stone, his slightly less talented brother.’
All the same, she is a champion to me.
And now, finally, the huge day comes. I have been so keyed up for this, for so long, that I thought I would be quite hysterical by now. Oddly, the great victory of Big Buck’s yesterday has calmed me. It was as if I had my fairy tale moment; I can’t expect any more. And there is something very soothing about being able to go up and see my own lady.
I’ve gone fatalistic, now. I don’t expect miracles. You can’t dismiss statistics, especially at Cheltenham. Big race stats tend to play out, pretty accurately. No twelve-year old has won the Gold Cup for forty years. There is a reason for that. The Gold Cup is three and a quarter miles of hard, undulating gallop, over big, unforgiving fences. Kempton, where Kauto won last time, is a sharp, flat track. It finds out horses in a different way, because it is so fast, but it does not quite ask the same, searching questions.
There are a lot of very, very good horses in this race. Long Run runs on like a steam train and stays all day. Burton Port is a smart, improving type. Dear old Midnight Chase, on whom I have a tiny each way bet of love, will jump and stay until every last cow is home, and adores this course. Weird Al is very talented. Diamond Harry can’t be discounted, if he is back to his best. I think Synchronised might need softer ground, but Jonjo O’Neill’s horses are running out of their skin.
I try to put emotion aside and think rationally, and forensically. Kauto Star has looked, this term, as if he is as good as he has ever been. When he is at his best, there is nothing to touch him. There are mutters about him not being so good around Cheltenham, that perhaps he won’t quite stay the extra two furlongs. This completely ignores the remarkable fact that he has run in five Gold Cups, won two, been second once, and third once. I don’t think you can say he does not stay, or act on this track.
The two worries are the old legs, and the schooling fall three weeks ago. Kauto was brought to his peak for the Betfair Chase in November; to maintain such a high level of fitness into March is a major training feat. Having said that, he looked in sparkling form on his last racecourse canter at Wincanton. Reports are that his latest school was foot perfect. Only time will tell whether there are any lingering effects from his tumble, which reportedly left him bruised and sore.
The thing that has won him his last two races, apart from his blazing talent and his relentless galloping and his mighty jumping, is his joy. This sounds absurdly sentimental, madly vague, fatally anthropomorphic. But I’m not sure I ever saw a horse loving his work so much as Kauto Star was loving his on Boxing Day, when he notched up his record-smashing fifth King George. If he brings that joy today, then the lightning could strike.
The head says, the form book says, the logical self says: the young legs of Long Run will prevail. The always unpredictable nature of Cheltenham makes one think that something quite else could roar out of the pack, and beat the both of them – Burton Port, or Synchronised. Hot favourites have been overturned this week; nothing is certain in racing.
My aching, yearning heart says, hopes, whispers, that if the auld fella has that extra dash of magic still in him, the miraculous something extra that has fired him to an extraordinary sixteen Grade One wins, from two miles to three and a quarter, then the dream might come true.
If it does, I shall shout and cry like I have never shouted and cried before.
But the rationalist in me thinks of his age. It is the toughest class race of the racing calendar. I’m not sure history can be made again.
All I want now, actually, is for him to stand up. I want him to get round safe, and come home happy to his box. I don’t want to see him disgraced. I’d hate for him to be pulled up.
But he owes us nothing, not one thing. No horse I know has tried so hard, and produced so much, season in, and season out. He does not just have a once-in-a-lifetime talent, he has toughness, and a great, big, bottomless heart. He might skip around on good ground, but I have seen him battle through rain and mud to win by a nose. He has been described as a prince, but there is something in him of the yeoman’s heart.
In a way, asking him to win today is too much. If he even makes the frame, it will be an outrageous achievement. The fairy tale might strike, and I have money that says it will, because my money must always be where my mouth is, but the likelihood is a little more prosaic. The odds are against. But the heart still beats a little faster at the very thought of what could happen.
No horse gets to be this good, for so long, without a remarkable team around him. It’s not just the brilliant trainer, Paul Nicholls, but the assistants, the head lad, the lass who looks after him. Clifford Baker, who rides him each morning, and Rose Loxton, who looks after him, have done amazing work, and deserve a sincere tip of the hat.
And then there is Ruby Walsh.
RUBY, RUBY, RUBEE roared the crowd yesterday, as Walsh paraded Big Buck’s past the stands after his World Hurdle triumph. His name is hymned for a reason. He might be the most complete jockey I’ve ever seen.
Over the years, he has developed an almost telepathic sympathy with Kauto Star. The old warrior gives more for Ruby than for anyone else. Watch them, going into a fence; Walsh sits quiet and still, seeing the perfect stride a mile out, getting the horse to take off almost by osmosis. There is no hassling, no kicking and booting; just perfect harmony, between man and horse.
After the remarkable 2009 Gold Cup, when Kauto regained his crown, Ruby, smiling all over his face, his eyes alight, made a lovely, simple, declarative sentence. He told a nation, on live television, of his bold horse: ‘Ah, I love him anyway.’
Ah, I love him anyway, too.
Big Buck's, his big old ears pricked, and Ruby Walsh, passing the post ahead of the gutsy mare, Voler La Vedette:
Photograph by Reuters.
Kauto with his trainer, Paul Nicholls:
Photograph by Getty.
And at full stretch: