Saturday, 7 September 2013

Why I love racing; or, the mystery of the thoroughbred.

One of the things I like about Facebook is that, rather oddly, it does carry a lot of wisdom on it. People find old sayings or famous quotations which speak to them, and paste them up, and since I need all the wisdom I can get, I feel rather grateful. One of the perennials is a variation on the theme of: the only way to be free and be happy is to stop caring what people think.

Any shrink will tell you this is true. People will think what they will; often, you cannot persuade them out of their staunch opinions. If they sincerely believe you are a lunatic, no amount of empirical proofs of sanity will convince them otherwise. The only answer is to make your peace with it, and carry on your merry way.
I know this to be true. I think I’ve even written a version of it myself. Follow your own goofy star, I say, every other day.

And yet, for all that, I occasionally find I want to explain myself. I am faintly aware that my intemperate passions and wild enthusiasms and dogged obsessions are slightly odd, or may be perceived so. What I should say is: let the perception stand. Instead, there is an absurd part of me which wants to say: no, but look, look, this is why.

I was thinking today about the horse thing. It’s not just the mare, who excelled herself in about eight different ways this morning, so that I spent about ten minutes stroking her neck and saying ‘Clever girl, clever girl,’ over and over. All summer, I’ve been immersed in the racing. I wake on big race mornings and think, like a child at Christmas – it’s Sky Lantern day, or Estimate day, or Dawn Approach day. Or, in the case of this morning: it’s Al Kazeem day. Nothing else matters. By the time of the big race, I am in a state of swamping nerves, my hands literally trembling, my breath shallow, my heart banging like a timpani drum.

It’s not just the mighty Group One horses who stir my blood. I fall in love with doughty handicappers, or little baby maidens, who are just learning their craft (there is something very touching about a talented two-year-old running rather green, looking around as if to say What the hell is this all about?), or the old-timers who won’t give up. I love the dogged stayers who go through the mud, and the fleet sprinters who skim over the firm going.

It’s the beauty, of course. The thoroughbred is one of the most aesthetically pleasing creatures in the world. I love it that they come in all shapes and sizes. There is a horse today of whom I am very fond, called Montiridge. He’s a big, burly fella, deep through the girth, muscled in the neck, all power. A couple of weeks ago, I won money on the lovely Tiger Cliff, a completely different type – lengthy and athletic, built more like an old-fashioned chaser than something which wins on the flat at York. Lethal Force, another favourite who runs today, is a neat, compact sort, with a big, intelligent eye and a handsome head, whilst the Queen’s great filly Estimate is a much more lightly-furnished type, with a delicate, narrow face and an enduring sweetness about her.

But also, it is the mystery. In perhaps no other spectator sport, in no other gambling medium, are the imponderables so imponderable. Yesterday, a filly called Filia Regina looked nailed on. She is bred in the purple, well-named since her sire is a king among horses, and she had absolutely cantered up last time out. She was long odds-on. She tamely dropped away to finish ninth, whilst a 20-1 shot took the prize. The stewards were so astonished that they called in the connections for a stern word. It was reported in the paper that the trainer ‘had no explanation’.

It might have been the ground. The weather had turned nasty in the north, and the going had gone from good to firm to good to soft in a heartbeat. Everyone is wildly discussing the ground today for the big race at Leopardstown. Declaration of War prefers it firm; no, no, has won on soft in earlier days. Al Kazeem needs give in the ground; but then he has won four times on firm. Despite this, his trainer, Roger Charlton, is reported as ‘praying for rain’. Racing people are not a godly lot as a rule. The churches where I grew up, at Lambourn and East Garston, were full only at Christmas. Yet in stables all over the country, people will be scanning the skies and sending up little prayers for rain or shine.

The ground does matter, despite the theory that a really good horse will go on anything. But it’s not the only thing. Filia Regina might just not have had a going day. They are like that, thoroughbreds. They can get out of bed the wrong side, just like humans. No one really knows why some of them are much better going right-handed than left-handed, why one horse will be brilliant at York but ordinary at Ascot. Horses that start their careers needing to be held up at the back will suddenly develop into front-runners. There is the inexplicable ‘bounce’ factor. There is also the arcane equine-human alchemy. No matter how talented the jockey, some horses react better for one human than another. Some prefer a quiet rider who just sits and lets them get on with it; some need to be galvanised and bustled along.

I don’t know why the mystery enchants me so much, but it does. I feel that horses live in a parallel universe to humans. The worlds overlap, but are also discrete. In a faintly preposterous way, I feel that they graciously allow people to share their world, even as the human brain will never fully understand it. They are essentially wild flight animals, all instinct and power and heart. They step, delicately, beautifully, generously, into the human sphere, and consent to stay for a while. To me, there is a profound magic in that. And perhaps we all need a little sprinkle of magic to go with our daily reality.
Just time for one picture today, since I must get my bets on.

Talking of mystery, nobody knows why this mare, whose grandsire won the Derby and the Triple Crown, who can trace her bottom line to all three foundation sires, ended up trailing round the back of moderate fields in her racing days. And nobody knows why, with all that famously hot thoroughbred blood in her, she will follow me round the field like a dozy old donkey:

7 Sept 1

Except, of course, that she has the sweetest heart of any horse I ever met. But that’s a whole other story.


  1. This thought just popped up: Red is to thoroughbreds and racing what Ferdinand the (fictitious) Bull is/ was to bullfighting. Remember Ferdinand, a magnificent "specimen" (in the eyes of the bullfighting world), loved nothing more than to sit in the shade of his favorite tree & smell the flowers.
    Anyway, that's MY story today & I'm sticking to it.

    (I LOVED that book, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf & especially the ink illustrations by Robert Lawson.)

  2. Lovely photo and blog post. Im a racegoing punter in Sydney, Australia and a previous racehorse owner. Can you conceive what its like for them tiny jockeys on 16 hands flat out in a pack down the straight?

  3. Horserace can also teach the game by offering interactive handicapping lessons. Rather than fret over a steep learning curve, racing needs to teach handicapping skills using all the incredible tools of the internet.


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