Today, a rare horse returns to the racecourse after over a year away.
Big Buck’s, a mighty, imperious fellow, left a huge gap. You could set your watch by him. He would turn up, three or four times a year, stroll around Cheltenham or Aintree or Newbury, make good horses look slightly sheepish, and then vanish again, leaving trails of glory in his wake.
Then, one day, he vanished altogether. Thoroughbreds are astonishingly tough, and vastly fragile, all at the same time. Big Buck’s, a huge, strong horse, showed he had an Achilles’ heel after all. A tendon went, and the racing world held its breath.
Today he returns, and nobody quite knows what will happen. It could be a coronation, as the emperor takes his throne; it could be a ghostly farewell. Some horses never come back from that sort of injury; some do, but are not the same. Their old form is a fleeting memory.
Big Buck’s has one of the best trainers in the business, a master at bringing horses back from long lay-offs. But the horse is eleven now, and he’s been off the track for a long time, and nobody knows what will be going through his horsey old head when he sees the great bowl that is Prestbury Park this afternoon. He is unbeaten in his last eighteen starts. He has shrugged aside fine horses in a canter. But today is the first time in a long time that the odds are against him. Timeform has run a wonderful, scientific examination of the statistics. The statistics say: not likely. At the end of the long, bloodless summation there is one, wonderful, human sentence. ‘But, he is Big Buck’s.’
If any of that diamond brilliance is still there, if he can pull this one off, Cheltenham will explode. All the hats will be in the air. There will be banshee rebel yells in this house, and certainly weeping. My fingers tremble as I type.
Whatever happens, I hope only that the big fella comes home safe. He has given so much joy. He owes nothing.
In his honour, I am reproducing here a piece I wrote about him just over two years ago, when he was in his pomp, so that you can see why my battered old racing heart is beating in my chest.
In December 2011, this is what I wrote:
To the greater glory of Big Buck's
My heart is actually pounding as I sit down to write. This is because I have just watched one of the greatest afternoon’s racing of my life, and the adrenaline is still coursing through me. I smile even as I think of it.
There is, in the world, a lovely, bonny horse called Big Buck’s. He is one of the great champions of a generation, a staying hurdler of such imperious talent that he makes good horses look quite ordinary. He jumps, he stays, he gallops; he answers every question asked of him with an emphatic yes.
He is trained by the brilliant Paul Nicholls, who also trains two of my other favourites, Master Minded and Kauto Star, and is ridden by Ruby Walsh. Walsh is, for my money, one of the finest jockeys riding today, perhaps one of the finest of any day, ever. He is poetry to watch. He has a curious stillness, an empathetic oneness with the creatures he rides. He very rarely boots a horse into a fence, as plenty of perfectly good jockeys do. Often, running into a fence, he sits quite, quite still, trusting the horse, communicating the stride almost through osmosis. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Anyway, today, Big Buck’s was bidding to win his fourteenth race on the trot. This is an extraordinary feat. It has only ever been done once before. Big Buck’s is a brilliant animal, but anything can happen in racing. There were some other hot contenders, the ground was testing; even though he was odds on, nothing was quite certain.
I wanted him to win so badly I could hardly watch. The Pigeon, catching my nervousness, prowled and paced about the room.
Big Buck’s went down to the start looking like a hero. He is a big horse, with powerful quarters, and great depth through the girth. (There are racing people who look for this; more room for the heart, they think.) He has a slightly old-fashioned look, like the horses my mother remembers from her youth.
Off they set. It was a long, gruelling contest. A smart grey called Dynaste was out in front, leaping over his hurdles like a cat. Big Buck’s stalked along in mid-division, waiting. Come on, come on, I muttered; steady, steady. Round the final bend, the grey was still out in front. Big Buck’s is so good that sometimes he looks as if he is not doing anything much; he can idle along, as if he is playing with his rivals, teasing them, almost. Ruby just had to shake him up a little.
And this is the glorious moment. Just one little shake of the reins, and the champion powers forward, as if someone has thrown a switch. Everyone else is suddenly scrubbing away, heads down. Ruby is looking up to the sky, as Big Buck’s saunters into the lead, collected as a show pony, certain as a stone. He wins in a canter. Ruby is patting his neck in congratulation three lengths before the winning post.
The great horse pricks his ears, raises his head, eases back to a trot, as if it all were a mere bagatelle. He is in his rightful place. He turns to acknowledge the roar of the crowd, who pay him his homage.
I don’t know why I find this so magnificent, but I do. It makes me cry actual tears of delight. In these daunting economic times, with political fury and fiscal meltdown, there is something so pure and wild and true about a really, really good horse.
My mother rings up. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘We are lucky to be alive to see these horses.’
We are. There’s a bit of a golden age going on in racing at the moment, with the kind of horses who make history, who touch your heart, whom you know you will remember years afterwards. It is our great good fortune to witness it.
Back to 2013. At the end of that 2011 post, I put up a picture of The Pigeon. I was thinking of her last night and missing her sorely. Here she is again, still the sweetest canine I ever saw. Above her photograph, I wrote the following caption, as true today as it was then -
My very own little heroine: