‘I just can’t tell you how much I love this horse.’ Sam Twiston-Davies, of Hello Bud.
One of the things I love about racing is its vocabulary. There is an entire lexicon of mysterious phrases which must seem impenetrable to the casual viewer. Then there are the straightforward words which may confuse. A great compliment paid to racehorses is that they are honest. What can this mean? That the animal will not cheat you at cards, or run off with your savings? That its word is its bond? What can honesty indicate when applied to a flight animal, with no moral sense?
In one way, a horse is only as good as its rider and handler. People say that equines are a perfect mirror of their owner. And it is true that they will give you back exactly what you put in. At the same time, they do have their intrinsic characters. There are fragile, sensitive ones, and fiery, alpha ones. There are idle ones and intelligent, questing ones; there are brave ones and even funny ones. Some are independent and self-contained as cats; others are fools for affection. (My own mare is one such; she will do anything for love.)
Some have an acute sense of their own brilliance. This is what my mother calls the look of eagles, when the champions lift their heads and survey their kingdoms. Kauto Star had it, and Arkle, and Desert Orchid, and Frankel; Sprinter Sacre had it yesterday. They seem to know they are emperors.
Honesty, in a horse, is a sort of true straightforwardness. They do not look to left nor right; they are not thinking of alternatives. You ask them to do something, and they do it, with all their good hearts. Some horses just are more tractable than others. There are some that, however well you school them and treat them, always have a mischievous game playing in their horsey old heads. ‘Bit of a monkey,’ people will say, of that type.
One of the most honest horses in training is a wonderful old veteran called Hello Bud. He is a glorious jumper, and his speciality is leaping round over the vast Aintree fences. He does not, as the racing people say, know how to run a bad race.
He has been ridden by Sam Twiston-Davies since the jockey was still a schoolboy amateur, and they have a glorious and rather touching partnership. Twiston-Davies is twenty now, just at the beginning of what will surely be a glittering career, and dear Hello Bud is fourteen, which is old for a chaser, and is cantering into the twilight of his competitive life. Soon, it will be time for him to go out in the field, where the roar of the crowd shall be a distant memory.
I adore him because he jumps like a stag, because he always tries his heart out, because he really loves it, and because he has that shining honesty, written all over his lovely bay face.
Yesterday was the Becher Chase, over the big Grand National fences. A strong field of class horses was lined up, some of them half the age of Hello Bud. But I always back him, out of sheer love, and so I did again, a tiny bit each-way at 14-1.
I pride myself, absurdly, on my rational mind and my empiricism, but even I cannot resist magical thinking, every once in a while. In my irrational mind, it would be sheer bad manners not to have money on that great journeyman, who has given me so much joy. I could not quite see him winning, but I did think he would hunt round, foot-perfect as always, and if one or two made a mistake, he might run into a place.
Off they set. Hello Bud, under a lovely, quiet, calm ride from Sam Twiston-Davies, was indeed hunting round, jumping from fence to fence, ears pricked, seeing a perfect stride every time. He was up with the pace, bowling along as if he were eight, having a ball. This could easily be his last race, and the dancing pleasure of watching him stream over those huge fences was delight enough, whatever the result.
He is not a flashy jumper. He does not make vast, vaunting leaps. What he does, which is so lovely to watch, is measure each fence perfectly; he flows over the great obstacles, never deviating, rarely having to put in a short stride. It is almost as if he and the fences are one, built ideally for each other. Twiston-Davies is intelligent enough and confident enough to let the horse find his own way; he does not hassle the old fella, or push him into his jumps. ‘He’s cleverer than I am,’ he said, after the race.
As the race entered its final stages, I kept thinking Hello Bud would run out of petrol. The younger legs would surely rush past him; age would take its toll. But there he was, still up at the front, in a glorious, rolling rhythm, finding a little bit more with each brave stride.
He met the last perfectly, and then there was the long, soul-sapping run-in, the awful sward of green where so many dreams are shattered. Five good horses were coming at Hello Bud, snapping at the old heels, their jockeys crouched low for a late charge.
‘I was almost crying,’ said Sam Twiston-Davies, afterwards, talking to Jim McGrath. ‘I wouldn’t be one for shouting, but I was roaring at him all the way up the run-in. I could hear everyone coming at me and all the crowd. Look how tough he is, he just keeps sticking his head out.’
Oh, you old beauty, I thought. Hold on, hold on. I was on my feet at this stage, also roaring. I have never met Sam Twiston-Davies in my life, but I was yelling ‘COME ON SAM’ at full volume. The commentator was screaming; Stanley the dog, who has not witnessed Saturday racing mania before, was barking his head off. The young legs of the chasing pack were rattling down the straight in a cavalry charge, each horse finishing like a freight train, catching Hello Bud with every yard.
‘GO ON MY SON,’ I bellowed.
Hello Bud put his dear old head down, and did not stop. He drew on every inch of his mighty racing heart. This was his moment of glory, and he would not be denied, not by youth, not by class, not by anything.
He kept galloping, gallant and true, and he flashed past the post, the winner by a neck.
Aintree exploded with joy. Twitter exploded with joy. I exploded with joy. I’m afraid to say there were tears streaming down my face.
I’ve seen a lot of glorious things in racing. I used to go and watch the imperious Desert Orchid at Sandown and Kempton. I still think of that sunny day at York when I watched Frankel take apart a top class field for fun. I’ve seen the wonder that was Master-Minded in his pomp, and the doughty courage of Dawn Run, and the fine brilliance of Kauto Star.
But for sheer, heart-lifting joy, I’m not sure I ever saw anything so wonderful as Hello Bud winning the Becher Chase at the age of fourteen. I think that one will go down in the annals, carved forever into the granite halls of fame.
‘I can’t even explain what this horse means to me,’ said Sam Twiston-Davies, afterwards.
There are horses that you may admire. You may be thrilled by their raw talent, their diamond brilliance. There are horses that are so good at what they do they leave you in awe. And then there are the horses with whom you fall helplessly in love. Often, funnily enough, they are not the very best. They do not stalk the land in a shining armour of perfection. They do not have unbeaten records. They are not untouchable.
What they have is a refusal to give up, that lovely honest will to offer their all, whatever the conditions, whatever the opposition, to keep coming back even when it seems hopeless. They are the bravehearts of the racing world, filled with courage and grace. Sometimes they will win, not because they are the best, not because they have the finest numbers on the book, not because of stellar bloodlines. They win on guts and heart and love of the game.
Hello Bud is such a horse.
Dick Francis once wrote that there are no fairy tales in racing. Yesterday felt like a fairy tale to me.
The little herd, in a rare moment of sun:
Myfanwy the Pony, who seems to think she has turned into a princess:
Red the Mare, all soft and dopey in her winter gear:
With Stanley the Lurcher, who is still slightly uncertain about what he clearly regards as ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS DOGS:
The amber eyes:
The hill, from yesterday:
I would so like to put up a picture of Hello Bud and Sam Twiston-Davies, but my friend The Classicist, who works for Getty Images, has given me a stern warning about copyright. ‘Even if I give all the proper attributions?’ I pleaded. But he gave me the serious look he has been giving me since I was eighteen. He is a man of strict moral compass, and I must be guided by him. Those racing photographers work hard for their living, and I cannot just be pinching their pictures for free. I would be furious if people were reproducing my professional work without asking, so I cannot have my cake and eat it.
So, if you would like to see the hero in action, you can see him here:
Or just google SHEER GLORIOUSNESS.