It is Derby Day.
This is the day that I go down to my quiet field, ringed by Scottish hills and deep woods, and tell my mare of the great moment in 1970 that her grandfather won the storied race.
This is, of course, absurd, and not just because she does not speak English and the name Nijinsky means nothing to her. He was a prolific sire; there are hundreds, possibly thousands of his descendants running round green fields and emerald racetracks.
And yet, it is a daily source of idiot pride to me. It is one of the things that makes me singingly happy. On dark evenings when my spirits fall, I lift them again by going back through her pedigree, finding the mighty names of Hyperion, Gainsborough, St Simon, Mahmoud, Eclipse, and all three of the foundation sires.
Pedigree is what everyone is talking about today. The breeding of racehorses is a science and an art. It is also a lottery. My darling Red was the slowest horse in England, despite her illustrious bloodlines.
The question now is how will that lottery shake out for Dawn Approach. His sire, New Approach, won the Derby himself. New Approach’s daughter, Talent, won The Oaks yesterday. There are no stamina worries there. But it is the bottom line that people often say counts for more, and although there are stayers further back in his dam’s pedigree, Dawn Approach’s mother never raced over further than a mile, and ran mostly at shorter distances.
This is what makes today most extraordinarily exciting. Dawn Approach is a beautiful, well-made, athletic horse with a thrilling degree of natural talent. He also has the advantage of a glorious temperament, taking all the hoopla and razzmatazz of big race days with a gentlemanly calm. Nijinsky, by contrast, used to get wired to the moon. My mother still remembers watching him getting hotter and hotter in the paddock, even after forty years. It was only the genius and patience of Vincent O’Brien that made him into the racehorse he was.
I think of Nijinsky today too because people forget that many serious pundits said he would not stay. He too had questions over his bloodlines, but Lester Piggott and Vincent O’Brien had faith, and he repaid it in spades. He not only won the Derby but completed the Triple Crown when he trounced them in the St Leger, winning on the bridle with Lester cheekily easing him up at the line.
If he stays, he wins, is the line on Dawn Approach. His good temperament will help to conserve energy; his soaring talent will see him through. I’d love to see him make monkeys of them all, with his good heart and his big white face, but there is a possibility he will just pack up two furlongs out, and the glittering dreams will smash to the ground.
The truth is, nobody knows. We shall not be certain of anything until about four minutes past four this afternoon, when the cards are played and the hand revealed. Because of this uncertainty, it is one of the most exciting Derby days I can remember. We have an unbeaten colt, of visceral speed, incredible ability, high class, in the hands of a master trainer. And we have the hovering question mark, dancing over his lovely head.
As I write this, my fingers are trembling faintly. My heart is beating in my chest. There are still three hours to go and I can hardly sit still. I always ask myself why, on these great days. It’s just a race, it’s just a horse; what can it matter?
It is love, for me. It is an antic, vivid, visceral love. I love these racing horses because they are so beautiful, and brave, and bold. So much is asked of them, and so much is given.
But thinking now, I wonder if it is something even more profound than that. Despite Dawn Approach’s lovely, easy temperament, there is something of the wild still in these fast thoroughbreds. They are different from other horses in their pure breeding for the perfect combination of strength and velocity. Any of them, running from the gaff tracks to the famous courses, must go back through eight straight generations even to take part.
I think there is something in that purity, which produces the brilliance and the will to win, which touches an untamed part of the human self. Racehorses are not quite domesticated in the way that riding horses are. It is fanciful, but I think they still hear their ancestral voices, calling down the generations. There is something untrammelled and uncontained about them, which touches the depths of my own human heart.
In life, especially in middle age, I must learn to be sensible and practical and reasonable. (I do not always succeed.) I must live in the civilised world and play by the good rules of civilised society. Watching a great thoroughbred, at full stretch, with all that mighty, wild brilliance, that soaring spirit, that fierce determination, that gleaming loveliness, I feel released from my ordinary, workaday self. I too am untrammelled, taken back to the elemental, wild parts of my sometimes confined spirit. In some odd way, these brilliant creatures set me free.
I love them because they are beautiful, and I love them because they are true. They are truth and beauty; that is all I know and all I need to know.
And I hope that Dawn Approach does defy the doubters. I hope he does stay. I hope he swoops round the impossible camber of Tattenham Corner and sets the crowd on a roar. I hope his sun also rises.
Only time for two pictures today. I wanted to show you Red at her most thoroughbred and aristocratic. You can see her here after a damn good gallop round the field, her veins up, her grand blood coursing through her. I had to go back to last year for these, because now she is so relaxed that she rarely breaks out of an amble, and spends most of her time looking more like a dozy old donkey than a descendant of Derby winners:
Have a great day, my darlings. Win or lose, I think it will truly be a race to remember.