Posted by Tania Kindersley.
In the midst of all the celebration and glory of the extraordinary Bradley Wiggins, my own nomination for sporting greatness goes to someone who was quietly defeated.
Yesterday’s big race at Ascot was an absolute thriller. The King George is the great mid-season race. It has been won by a hectic roll call of the mightiest champions, from The Minstrel to Nijinsky, Mill Reef to Shergar, Brigadier Gerard to Dancing Brave. The lovely Galileo colt, Nathaniel, was making a bid to be only the third horse to win it two years in a row.
It was not just that the statistics were against him. The line-up was one of the strongest we have seen for years. Assembled were horses who have won a Coronation Cup, a Breeders’ Cup, a Hong Kong Vase, an Arc de Triomphe, a St Leger, a Japanese Derby, a Melbourne Cup and a French Derby. On top of that, Nathaniel had suffered a horrible chest infection early in the season, which meant that his preparation was disrupted. He came back, after months off the track, to win a gutsy victory at Sandown two weeks ago. He was classy and courageous that day, but it was a tough race, and to ask him to come back to this top class contest in such a short time was a proper question.
There is a mystery to thoroughbreds, known as the bounce factor. It means that they will run well after a long time off, and then flop horribly next time out, even if they are working well at home. Even the finest judge of a horse can be caught out by this.
So dear Nathaniel was going to have to overcome quite a lot of odds to carve his name on the board once more.
I backed him because I love him. I love that he is so big and bonny and brave. I love his polite and brilliant young jockey, William Buick, who is only in his low twenties, but rides as if he has the wisdom of the ages on his shoulders. I dare not say that I love his trainer, John Gosden, he is much too august for such a word, but I admire him more than I can say.
The horse ran his race. He was going smoothly round the final bend, eased fluently to the front, put his glorious, honest head in the lead, was charging into racing glory, when the flying mare Danedream, who made mugs of the colts in last year’s Arc, came streaming up the outside as if she had sprouted wings.
The Brother and I were yelling so clamorously at the television and the Pigeon was barking so madly and the photograph was so tight that at first we did not know who won. It was on the nod.
For a delirious second, I thought my tough, genuine fella had done it, but he lost by a nose. That is the literal and official description. That is the difference in racing between triumph and loss, between the winning purse and the consolation prize, between the wild cheers of the winner’s enclosure and the quiet dignity of the second’s place.
I care that the horse did not win, of course I care. I had twenty-five quid that said I cared. I backed him more from love than forensic examination of the form. But then I realised that I also did not care. My admiration for him was dimmed not an iota. He was, as they say, beaten by the best horse on the day, and she was a very, very good mare indeed, as replete with class and heart as the colt she vanquished.
Nathaniel ran a blinding race, gave every ounce of his wonderful self, and went down to one of the most honourable defeats I’ve ever seen. The two horses gave us a race which had everything; it was a mighty battle, an absolute festival of thrills and talent, and those who saw it will remember it for a long time.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing was the reaction of John Gosden. It must be hard, when you see your fella go down, to have a microphone shoved in your face. For all that Nathaniel ran like a tiger, there must have been that stunning sense of loss, the crashing regret of so near and yet so far. To gather yourself and be courteous and articulate after that, on national television, is quite a feat in itself.
Here is what Gosden said:
‘I'm delighted with him. I didn't know which horse had won crossing the line, and I was on the line. The winner has come back to her best. Anyone who was lucky enough to see her win the Arc last year, breaking the track record and destroying the colts, would know she is marvellous. She didn't handle the ground at Saint-Cloud the other day and she's come here and run a blinder. Our horse has run his race quite brilliantly - I'm beyond thrilled. I can't believe in two weeks he can run two races like that back to back. It's quite impressive. I think I'll suggest Danedream goes to the breeding shed! I'd love to come back here for the Champion Stakes and there is also the Arc.’
I think that short paragraph sums up everything about sportsmanship. To manage to pay tribute both to his own horse, and to the mare that beat him, with such grace and goodwill, even to make a little joke, shows everything which is best about racing. Not that many men would manage it.
In sport today, all will be about winning. It is very thrilling to think that a Briton is about to conquer the Tour de France for the first time in its history. There will be scenes of jubilation; there will be champagne and raised fists and roars from the crowd. Broadcasters will go nuts. But yesterday, I saw triumph in defeat. In his quiet box, Nathaniel will be dozing, letting the scars of battle heal. He, and his gracious trainer, are my sporting heroes this weekend.
And, since I cannot let you go without news of Red the Mare, here is a quick report:
In honour of the King George, which was once won by her grandsire, I decided to let my own little champion rumble. She’s been a bit fussy lately, out riding, and I’ve been trying different approaches, with varying success. We are so relaxed together on the ground: she follows me round the paddock like a dopey old dog, I can back her up with a twitch of my finger. But in the saddle, to my keen regret, we have not quite achieved that same level of communion.
Today I thought: I’m going to let her go. I’m not going to ask her for anything. I’m just going to let her be a horse. I let her virtually pick her own way; if she wanted to canter, we cantered. We had a fine fast gallop up the hayfields, and because I was riding her on a loose rein, she came back to me like a dream, whereas yesterday, when I was trying to do damn dressage riding, she was zooming about and fighting the bit.
If she fussed, I just laughed at her. I sang her a song. (The Rhythm of Life, since you ask.) I chatted to her. Go on, you old silly, I told her; I know how posh you are. If you want to go as fast as your grandfather, you just go ahead.
And suddenly, she was having fun. All the fussing stopped; the tension went out of her body. In a heartbeat, harmony spread between us like starlight. She started using all her great thoroughbred body; she was swinging along, filled with delight.
I don’t know what it was. A horse takes time to get used to a new rider. We’ve been having a bit of a battle, I think because I was asking too much of her, too soon. Today, all I requested was that she be herself, and she responded so sweetly that I felt my heart lift with joy. Sod lateral flexion and engaging the hindquarters and all that nonsense. For the moment, all I am going to do is let Red be Red.
The fields in which we rode:
Red, with her little grey friend just behind:
Gazing at her view, with her serene duchess face: