Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Here is the thing I forget, every damn year: the agony. For something that is supposed to give so much pleasure, a thing I anticipate with so much impatience and excitement, Cheltenham is curiously painful. It’s not just when horses take brutes of falls, which I find harder and harder to watch as I get older and softer, it’s actually more that the ones I love, I love so much. I want them to win not because I have had a tenner on, or because it will fulfil some double or treble, but for sheer, undilute love.
This is perfectly ridiculous. I am forty-five years old. I spent my early years with a rough, tough old racing father. He wept like a baby over horses, but he would be out booting them over fences the next day. When he was betting, he was flinty as a Russian oil billionaire. He had no sentiment at all when it came to his wallet.
I think he greatly admired a really good horse; I remember watching Moscow Flyer with him, and seeing the pleasure light up his face, but I could not tell whether it was because he really loved the horse, or whether he had had a huge punt. Perhaps he knew that, after a lifetime spent watching horses, he could not allow himself to get emotionally involved with animals that were not his responsibility.
I, on the other hand, am a Saturday afternoon observer. I know and understand racing because it’s where I came from, but I also carry the fan-like tendency of the outsider. When I see a really good horse, jumping round for fun, I see aesthetics, and emotion, and high narrative. I get carried away by the guts and the glory. There are some horses that are really, really brave. They are the ones that will go for the gap, that will give their jockey that extra, magical something on the run-in, when it seems there is nothing left to give, when they are running on fumes. You sometimes see a horse win a race through sheer heart.
Even hardened racing people will say, with admiration, of one of those, ‘he’s a real trier’. On the excellent Channel Four, you will often hear John Francome, who is not a sentimentalist at all, say: ‘he runs his heart out, every time'.
Sheer talent is very thrilling too, in quite another way. When Sprinter Sacre won on Tuesday, it was because he was so stellar that he could simply stroll over his fences, never getting out of second gear. He has not yet had to show his heart, because he is so much better than his cohort. Watching him is like observing some freakish natural phenomenon; you can see the wild in him, his ancestral herd heritage. He was meant to run, very, very fast, and that is what he does.
In the first race yesterday, quite another kind of horse gave me a different kind of thrill. Teaforthree is a lovely, old-fashioned kind of chaser, a big, bonny, bold staying horse. He is honest as the day is long. He does not have that blinding brilliance of the really top class, but he is very, very good at what he does. Most of all, he seems to love it. He hunts round, with his ears pricked, absolutely at home on the racecourse.
He was running in a four mile chase, which is absurdly long, jumping twenty-four of those vast Cheltenham fences. He went off in the lead, leaping over the obstacles with a delightful combination of poetry and accuracy. I wanted him to win for love, because he is such a fine gentleman, and because he comes from a small yard which deserves its day in the sun, and for money too, because I had a tenner on him at 8-1.
He can’t stay in front the whole way round, I thought, not for four miles. He can’t go on jumping like that.
But you know what? He just did. He never put a foot wrong, and when his smiling Irish amateur rider asked him the question after the last, he lengthened his stride like the good old fella he is, and cantered gloriously up the hill. I shouted and roared and danced for joy. It was all jubilee, for that moment, in my house.
But the problem with all this is that I care far, far too much. When the bright novice Grand Crus got beat, I took it personally. When the brilliant and brave Sizing Europe could only finish second, after a very messy Champion Chase, I felt a raging fury. This was only compounded by a horrid cavalry charge of a hurdle race where there were three hideous falls. I suddenly felt disgusted with the whole business.
This idiot level of caring makes the beautiful victories much keener and sweeter. The other side of the coin is that when the one I love gets beat, or has no luck in running, or just does not run his race, as horses sometimes do not, I have a crushing, crashing sense of disappointment, which can linger for the rest of the day.
Today, Big Buck’s lines up for the World Hurdle. I want him to win so much that I can hardly speak. The wanting is so acute it is actually making me grumpy. I think: I’m not sure I can even watch the race. It will be too terrifying, too much agony. This is supposed to be a lovely afternoon at the races. Yet I shall be pacing about, literally or metaphorically hiding behind the sofa. I shall be quite tempted to leave the house altogether, and go for a nice walk with the Pigeon until the race is over.
The whole thing is too absurd for words. I cannot explain it. A shrink would probably have a field day with it. I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be one of those sanguine, calm people, who can let life roll off them. I know they exist. (It’s like the Organised People, whom I also observe with awe and wonder.)
On days like this, I rather yearn to know how they do it. A shrug of the shoulders, a wry smile, a philosophical sigh, and the thing is done. How very, very lovely that must be.
The wonderfully collected Teaforthree, on the far side, by Mark Cranham for the Racing Post:
And with a very happy JT McNamara, coming into the winning enclosure, by Getty Images:
The power and the glory that is Big Buck's, photograph uncredited:
And now I really am stopping.
I should not give you any tips at all, after the drubbing I took yesterday, and today is such a difficult betting day that I am mostly going to keep my cash in my pocket. But I really do like Noble Prince for the very competitive Ryanair at 2.40. Although you could make a really good case for any one of eight of them. I'd love to see Somersby run a big race for Henrietta Knight too.
I have a tiny feeling for Cristal Bonus in the Jewson, but only a five quid at 5-1 feeling. Donald McCain's horses are on fire, and the favourite, Peddler's Cross, will run well.
Big Buck's is not a betting thing. He is 2-1 on. This means you have to put two pounds on to win one. Also, this is the toughest opposition he has faced yet, strength and depth. The Willie Mullins' horses are fancied, and Oscar Whisky, trained by the on fire Nicky Henderson, who had FOUR winners yesterday, is a terrifying danger. Just hope, and watch, and enjoy the brilliance.
If he does win, I shall cry shameless tears of joy.