Saturday, 22 June 2013

Ascot, Day Five. Looking back on the lovely Sky Lantern, and ahead to the beloved question mark that is Mad Moose, and the streak of lightning that is Society Rock.

This week has really been one for the girls. It has had everything, this Royal Meeting. The big battalions of Ballydoyle marched forward, the titan that is Dawn Approach came back to his roaring best, the veteran Johnny Murtagh showed the young fellas how it is done.

The Queen won her race. The memory of Sir Henry Cecil was honoured, with his widow showing the absolute definition of courage, which Hemingway once described as grace under pressure.

The new boys had their moment in the sun, with Olly Stevens in his very first season as a trainer, and George Baker in his fifth, sending out winners, and the youthful James Doyle racking up a quick-fire treble.
But perhaps the memory of the dancing fillies is what I shall most hold dear – Riposte and Estimate on Thursday, and then, yesterday, the lovely grey Sky Lantern.

I have loved Sky Lantern since I followed her career as a two-year-old. She just held on to win the Guineas, but yesterday she had a much harder task, drawn out wide in a big field. To add to her troubles, Richard Hughes, her jockey, has been having an awful week, meeting trouble in running, making one controversial decision to switch right across the track which he himself admits was not his finest hour. All the armchair jocks were up in arms.

How they howl and carp, these online cavaliers, most of whom have never sat on a thoroughbred in their lives, let alone one that is going at forty miles an hour. Every jockey, like every human, will make a mistake once in a while. Racing is as much an art as a science, and tactics cannot be perfect in every single race. But the punters are merciless and shriek with their pockets, accusing good jockeys of riding to lose or stitching a race up, as if these tough, hard-working professionals are metronomic machines who should never make the slightest error.

I stuck with Sky Lantern in the end, because I love her, and even though I convinced myself the draw would defeat her, and the Irish raider might have the edge, I could not desert her now. I got her at a happy five-to-one, and Hughes dropped her out the back, let her find her own pace, picked up her up about three out, went right past the field in the straight, and won as he liked, easing up.

It was the prettiest of finishes, that delightful thing where the jockey does not even need to wave the whip, but can just keep the mighty animal balanced, riding with hands and heels. Hughes was patting her neck and pulling her ears before he even passed the winning post.

‘Well,’ said my mother this morning, as we relived the race. ‘She can do anything now.’

The second most satisfying moment of the day was a little whimsical each-way shout on Forgotten Voice, trained by Nicky Henderson.

It’s always rather funny seeing the National Hunt trainers at Ascot, all guyed up in their top hats and morning coats instead of a dented old Trilby and thorn-proof tweeds.

For some reason, I love these dual-code horses almost more than anything. I don’t know why. I suppose I am an admirer of versatility. Forgotten Voice had once been high class on the flat, but that was years ago. He’s gone for hurdling now, and to come back to the Royal Meeting is something of a stretch.

Yet he was the pick of the paddock by a country mile, his coat so shining and gleaming you could see your face in it, his head held high with bright spirits, his massive quarters packed with muscle. He was 12-1 and who knows what old form a genuine horse may pull out of the bag? It was worth a bit of anyone’s money.
And the dear old fellow damn well did pull it out of the bag, hanging on for the line against all comers, and I shouted so loudly that this morning my throat is quite hoarse.

Today, my own private dramas will revolve around two horses who could not be more different. One is another of the dual code fellas. Mad Moose is a chaser who is pretty good, but not quite in the very top class. His greatest moment over the sticks came when he chased home the majestic Sprinter Sacre.

He is perhaps the quirkiest horse currently in training, and there are days when he gets it into his mysterious, horsey old head not to go. The commentator starts the call, the field jumps off, and the camera pans back to a slightly disconsolate-looking Sam Twiston-Davies, with Mad Moose standing stock still as his compadres gallop off into the distance, a faintly mulish, bugger you gleam in his eye.

‘Nope,’ he is saying. ‘Not today. No thank you.’

Nigel Twiston-Davies is nothing if not imaginative, so, in a rather radical move, he sent his idiosyncratic old fellow off to the flat, at Doncaster. To have your first run in a flat race at the age of nine is a pretty rare thing in racing. To everyone’s utter amazement, Mad Moose won, at 28-1.

He then went to Chester, where, on a dank afternoon, he finished a plugging-on second to the runaway winner, Mount Athos, with some pretty decent horses in behind.

Suddenly, Mad Moose was everybody’s darling. Hopes were high on a sunny Yorkshire day on the Knavesmire, where he lined up again. The stalls rattled open, and the mighty Moose took two slow steps forward and then stopped. Willy Twiston-Davies flapped his reins a bit at the old fellow and then admitted defeat. Mad Moose stood defiantly still, looking quite grumpy and entirely unrepentant.

Twitter went mad with delight. It’s a horrid thing for the owners, and all the connections, and York is a long way from the Cotswolds, but it was just so terribly funny.

The stewards did not think it amusing. The dry post-race report noted: ‘future similar behaviour may result in the gelding being reported to the British Horseracing Authority.’ Everyone else was beside themselves with delighted hilarity. For some reason, it made his public adore him more keenly.

‘We’ve all had days like Mad Moose,’ wrote one tweeter; ‘where we think ‘fuck it, just can’t be arsed.’

‘What next for Mad Moose?’ said another wag. ‘Dressage, equestrian, rugby union?’

Even his jockey could not help seeing the funny side. Willy Twiston-Davies tweeted: ‘Moosey was naughty.’ His hashtag for the day was #doeswhathewants. The Twitterverse was rocking with laughter. ‘Just makes me love him more,’ said one fan.

I suspect there is something peculiarly British about it all. Of course the people of Blighty love a mighty champion, but what they love the most is the underdog. And an unpredictable, cussed underdog with a mind entirely of his own is exactly what the people of these islands cannot resist.

To see a fellow like that at the Royal Meeting is not exactly what one might expect, and it brightens the gaudy carnival that is the summer flat season. I shall back him for sheer love. The good girls have won me enough money this week, so I can afford some caprice today.

My second big hope is another old-timer, Society Rock. He’s six now, and has been round the block. He could not be more different from Mad Moose if he tried. He is a fleet, strong, shiny sprinter, fast as the wind.
He has, however, had similar travails at the start. At this meeting last year, he reared up in the stalls, missed the break catastrophically, and did well to finish as close as he did to the imperious Australian star, Black Caviar. His trainer, James Fanshawe, took him back to stalls school, worked patiently with the colt, and produced him at York this spring for a thrilling victory first time out.

I’d love him to win because he is a brave, tough, genuine horse. He also comes from one of the smaller yards. James Fanshawe is a supremely talented trainer, admired by his peers, popular in his community. But he is not a household name. He does not pitch up at the sales with a prince or a sheikh or an Irish plutocrat by his side, able to hurl cash around. He does not have two hundred horses to choose from like the massive operations which now hold sway. His yearlings will usually cost tens rather than hundreds of thousands.

I’ve got nothing against the big boys, and admire the skill and success of the Hannons and the Ballydoyle posse. But it’s a lovely thing to see the smaller operations outdo the big guns, and it’s good for racing. It’s a mark of real dedication and skill, to be able to produce top-class winners when you can’t just throw money at the problem.

And Fanshawe has had a cruel blow recently, when his other stellar sprinter, Deacon Blues, succumbed to a recurring injury, and had to be retired just as he was on the come-back trail.

The particularly nice thing was that, even in the midst of that crushing disappointment, all thoughts at the Pegasus yard were of the horse’s future well-being. They wrote on their website: ‘He will make a lovely riding horse as he has impeccable manners and he is very easy to do anything with.  His owners will make sure that he has a wonderful home and will be well looked after.  He certainly won’t want for anything.’

Beyond all that, Society Rock is owned by Simon Gibson, a gentleman in his eighties who has done a huge amount for Newmarket over the years. No owner would deserve victory more.

So that’s why he would be my happiest story of the day. He’s in a big field, so he will need luck in running. He’s got some exceptionally good horses up against him. But he has the talent and speed and the heart to win, and I hope he does. His dear name will be the one I am shouting at the top of my lungs, at 3.45 this afternoon.

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