Over at Leopardstown today, a late chapter in a long and glorious story will be written. The veteran Tidal Bay is crossing the water to have a pitch at one of Ireland’s best chases.
Old horse runs in race is not the stuff of which headlines or fairy tales are made. But this is not any old horse, nor any old race.
Tidal Bay is one of the most intriguing and idiosyncratic horses in racing. He has a peculiar running style, with his head stuck in the air, star-gazing all the way round. It seems almost as if he defies the laws of physics, for a horse should not be able to travel at velocity whilst making that shape.
He also has very strong ideas about the world and what he wants to do in it. He quite often moseys round at the back, as if he really can’t be fagged, and whilst the rest of the field are getting on with it, he and his jockey (mostly Ruby Walsh, lately Sam Twiston-Davies) will be having what looks like a fairly comprehensive conversation. The chat generally goes on for about three-quarters of the race, and appears to run along the lines of: not sure I want to; yes you do; still not convinced; come on it’s mighty craic; oh, all right.
You cannot tell this horse to do anything. He is stronger and more determined and more cussed than any puny human. Riding him is mostly a matter of nuanced and intelligent persuasion.
Once the conversation is finished, Tidal Bay makes up his mind, starts galloping in earnest, and quite often moves from last to first. In the old days, because of all this head-in-air orneriness, Timeform put the dreaded squiggle next to his name. The squiggle is like the Black Spot. It means unreliable, ungenuine, not to be trusted. But the funny thing is that Tidal Bay, in a tight finish, is all heart and guts. His cussedness comes into its own, as he gets a bugger off look in his eye, and goes from mule to alpha horse in a matter of strides. Suddenly, he damn well is the herd leader, and he’s going to boss the lot of them.
In the Lexus last season, he gave the racing public a finish for the ages. Half a length covered the first four home, and it was Tidal Bay, with a never-say-die surge of speed and guts, pushing his way through an impossible gap between two gallant, fighting horses, who prevailed, to roars of disbelief and joy. I have watched that race ten times, and I still have no idea how he got up.
The squiggle was quietly removed.
This season he has been mighty in victory, and amazingly courageous in defeat. He humped top weight through the mud at Chepstow last time, and finished a running-on third. He still runs with his head in the air, and he still tends to stalk round at the back for the first circuit, but the clever people at the Nicholls stable have found the key to his battling heart.
Today, probably for the last time, he goes up against the best of his peers in a Grade One chase. He is thirteen, which is old, in professional terms. The diamond brilliance usually loses its lustre when racehorses pass eleven. He had a hard race only a month ago, which can take it out of any horse, let alone one of his venerable years. He is up against First Lieutenant, a lovely, talented nine-year-old. First Lieutenant is a favourite of mine; I love his rangy, athletic build and his honest Roman nose. But I shall be shouting for dear Tidal Bay today, although I think the odds are against him.
He will be reunited with his old pal, Ruby Walsh, and who knows what chats they shall have, as they wander along at the back? If anyone can do the improbable, Ruby can.
Tidal Bay is not a horse of ease and grace. He is a horse of character and grit. That is why I love him. I think that is why he is adored by the crowds who come to watch him run. He’s not quite like anything else. And he’s been around so long, and given a huge amount of joy. If the auld fella can pull it out of the bag, there will not be a dry eye in the house. Certainly not in this house.
I can’t put a picture of him here, because of copyright. There is the red mare instead, who never won a single thing in her short and undistinguished racing career, but is of course the Grade One champion of my heart. She gave me a canter today of such lightness and delicacy that it was as if we were floating.