Sunday, 2 June 2013

I relive the Derby and Red the Mare imitates her more famous cousin. Or, a shaggy horse story for a Sunday afternoon.

It’s been a wild 24 hours. The Derby was one of the most dramatic I can remember. All the talk was of the mighty Dawn Approach, and my love for the great, unbeaten colt made me convince myself that he would get the trip and run away with the thing.

But as the time grew closer, my head said that the doubters had a point. It was that damn bottom line. So I looked at all the runners again, and had what they call a saver.

Oddly enough, it was not just Dawn Approach; pretty much all the runners had some kind of question mark over their heads. The track might not suit Libertarian’s way of running; the German form of Chopin was impossible to assess; Battle of Marengo had been workmanlike rather than thrilling last time out.

With my forensic betting hat on, I decided on Ruler of the World to get me out of trouble, for two reasons. He was the only horse in the race whom we knew stayed a mile and a half, and he had been very impressive at Chester. The twists and turns of Chester do not compare to the slopes and cambers of Epsom, but they do show whether a horse is well-balanced or not, and Ruler of the World had handled them with aplomb. Plus, he had Ryan Moore up, who is riding as beautifully and powerfully at the moment as any jockey I’ve seen.

And then came the great irony. Dawn Approach’s stand-out characteristic is his wonderful temperament. It was that which gave me hope he might stay, after all. His calm and dignity would conserve energy, and enable him to use every ounce of his power to get home. He was fine in the preliminaries, which test the thoroughbred to the limit. Seething crowds, barking loudspeakers, trumpet fanfares, men with television cameras; all this could be designed to freak out a flight animal. As if this were not enough, The Derby is unlike any other race meeting. The infield is free, and seventy thousand people gather there. The place is thronged with charabancs and monstrous funfair rides. Earlier in the day, Richard Hughes did well to keep Thunder Strike running straight when he spooked at some buses in the final furlong.

By the time Dawn Approach got to the start, he was sweating and on his toes, most unlike himself. As the stalls clattered open, he finally boiled over. He jumped and strained and fought for his head. The funereal pace gave poor Kevin Manning no chance to settle him. Rhythm wins races, and the great horse never came anywhere near a rhythm. He was less galloping than leaping.

He was still pulling at Tattenham Corner, when Manning had to let him go. ‘Oh, this is bad,’ said Simon Holt. For an impossible, hopeful moment, the colt hit the front and at last found his stride. But it was too late; the race was gone. The field overwhelmed him and he faded tamely away; all Jim Bolger’s Derby dreams and a million betting slips fluttering into the sunny air.

And Ruler of the World, my other fella? He put on an astonishing burst of late race speed which propelled him to the front two out, and kept on, straight and true, to the line.

For a while, I was too sad to appreciate the win. After all the anticipation, it was truly melancholy to watch a fine colt throw a race away like that. But later, I ran the replay and could finally thrill to a majestic performance. Ruler of the World doesn’t look much. He’s quite lightly furnished, a washy chestnut, with a narrow head. He does not have the powerful frame of Libertarian or the lovely outlook of Chopin; he does not have that preening presence which some champions carry. But he has talent, and he is bred in the purple, and he has an indomitable racing heart, and that was what got him there.

The other lovely thing is that Libertarian ran on like a train to snatch second, a triumph for the north, which has not sent out a Derby winner since the mighty Dante in 1945.

Even lovelier than all of it was that dear old St Nicholas Abbey, one of my favourite horses in training, absolutely cruised home in the Coronation Cup, making history in the process. He’s the first colt to win it three years in a row, a soaring achievement. He didn’t need shouting, but I roared him on all the same.

This morning, inspired by all that power and speed, I took Red the Mare for a long Sunday ride. We went out into the west meadow, Stanley loping by our side. There were fleet deer running out of the woods and the sun was shining and my mare was perfect. She is generally uncertain about going out on her own, so I was especially delighted by her sang-froid.

But as we came back towards the paddock, Autumn the Filly was getting a bad attack of separation anxiety. Her good leader had left her, and she was shouting and racing up and down the fenceline, almost in panic. We will have to work on this, I thought, before putting my full mind on Red, who was suddenly imitating her more famous cousin of yesterday.

All her high thoroughbred blood raced through her, and she did the thing she  does when fired up, which is to grow about a hand instantly, as if someone has blown her up with a bicycle pump. Her head went up in the air, and she switched into full emergency mode. She takes her job as lead mare very seriously, and one of her girls was in trouble.

Autumn continued to gallop back and forth like a barrel racer, Myfanwy trundling behind her like a little grey shadow. All Red wanted to do was gallop with them. It was the first time since I’ve been riding her in the rope halter that her blood was really up, and it was a fascinating moment. If she had decided to go, she could have. I am a ten stone human; she is a half ton horse. There’s no contest.

I sat deep and held her. She jumped and snorted and cavorted. I laughed and joshed her. ‘Come on, old lady,’ I said. ‘They are fine.’ I turned her in a couple of circles to get her mind back on me and her feet moving. If in doubt, always move the feet. And then she took a decision. She was going to listen to me, not the flight voices roaring in her ears.

And on we went. She was still pretty lit up and I had to concentrate and be strong and easy in the saddle. But there we were, my ex-racing girl and me, with a bunch of stimulus thrown at us, and it had worked out perfectly fine. I laughed in delight. I even sang her a little song. She likes a song.

There was a rather touching postscript to this story. When I took her back to the paddock, Red and Autumn touched noses and breathed at each other in delight and relief. As I took the halter off and let Red go, I was convinced she and the filly would roar off together, doing their Spanish Riding School of Vienna schtick. But instead, they gathered on either side of me, lowering their heads for love.

So the three of us stood there for a while, in the gentle Sunday sunshine, just happy to be together. It was one of my small things. And at the same time, it was a huge thing. I felt very vivid and very alive and very present in the world. The gifts that horse gives me are worth more than rubies.


2 June 1 28-05-2013 13-28-57 

Today would have been my Dad’s birthday. I’ve shown you this picture before, but it’s one of my favourites and I show it to you again. I don’t know if riding is heritable, but my father had a thing when he was in the saddle, a sort of gritted teeth determination, and I think of that quite a lot when I am on my mare. He was not the most stylish jockey in the world, but my mother always says that horses just ran for him. That’s a gift; you can’t teach it.

2 June 2 22-04-2011 02-42-32

I miss him a lot.


  1. I hope to see them all come together again this summer, the experience of the Derby under their belts, and wish it could be at a mile and a half, but guess that is doubtful. Not discounting anyone, I want to see how they move forward from here. May be an interesting summer of racing for the 3-year-olds.


  2. I just had to write and say how much I love your blog. It is one of the last things I read before going to sleep at night. The hill, the dog, the horses and the love are immensely moving and comforting. I am a relatively new person on dog island and have never met a horse, but now I understand the love and devotion to both species. Thank you for a lovely, lovely blog!

  3. I don't know what's cleverer - picking the Derby winner or calming down a lit-up thoroughbred in a rope halter. Seriously, respect... Rachel

  4. What a lovely, lovely post; every bit of it.
    Thinking of you thinking of your Dad. xx


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