The thing I forget about Cheltenham is the emotion. There is the love, there is the hope, there is the terror. Yesterday, one great dream came true, as the mighty Quevega put her honest, battling little head down, and galloped into the history books. She won the Mares’ Hurdle for the sixth year on the bounce, with a performance that was all guts, and I cried tears of joy. The tough mares move me like almost nothing else.
Earlier in the day, a cloud moved over the dazzling sun, as Our Conor, with his boldness, and his enthusiasm, and his bright white face, took a fatal fall.
No matter how much I tell myself that horses are as fragile as they are flinty, that they can die from getting cast in the box, or from a careless kick in the field, or from a sudden colic, I never get used to this. The lad who looked after the horse was led away in hopeless tears. I know that dark space of the empty box. My father’s great National hope, Earthstopper, ran an absolute blinder to finish fifth, and then dropped down dead from a heart attack. The fragile ticker, undetected, could have gone at any time. I remember Dad’s inconsolable weeping, on that bleak drive home from Liverpool to Lambourn.
My beautiful Red, so precious to me, shall not be here forever. I know, every day, that all it takes is one wrong step, an unseen rabbit hole, a freak field accident, a mystery infection, like the one that mastered the sweet little HorseBack filly. They gallop into the heart, and can gallop away at any moment.
I thought about Our Conor all night, and woke up remembering him this morning. I stopped thinking about the horses I loved, the ones I wanted to win so badly, the ones I yearned to have their moment in the sun, and only hoped that they would all come home safe.
And then, slowly, slowly, the dream started again. The engine began to rev up. The optimism grew; the hopes rose. There is a horse called Sire De Grugy, trained in a relatively small yard, owned by a group of people who include plumbers and hairdressers, who only have this one horse. Compared to the mighty guns who arrive for the festival, the millionaires and billionaires with their shining strings of stars, these were underdogs indeed. Sire De Grugy is a two-miler, and his class was overshadowed by the mighty black aeroplane that is Sprinter Sacre, who drove all before him at this distance. But suddenly, Sprinter was out for the year, and the rangy, athletic chestnut with the shining white blaze could step into the spotlight.
He’s been winning beautifully all season. On the book, he was the one to beat in the Champion Chase, the finest test of the two mile chaser. But the doubts started to swarm. He had been beaten twice at Cheltenham, and horses for courses is a cast-iron rule. Also, he had had a long season, running some races in heavy ground, which can take it out of even the finest athlete by the time spring comes around. And my own private worry was that he could be almost too bold over his fences, really attacking them, taking off a mile away, reaching over the birch with his raking front feet scything through the air. At Prestbury Park, at top speed, against the best, there is no room for error. I fretted that his very bravery might be his undoing.
Besides, as Dick Francis wrote, there are no fairy tales in racing. So I steadily and sternly tried to talk myself out of Sire De Grugy. I failed. The whole thing was too much. He’s such a bright, bonny horse. He’s such a trier. His trainer and jockey are father and son, so there was the whole family romance of the thing. His owners are the most enthusiastic, happy, sporting bunch you could imagine. They had said before the race that it was enough just to be here. There is no greed or grasp in them. I wanted this result more than diamonds. I threw my cash on out of loyalty and love more than flinty judgement, and hid behind the sofa.
The sun shone. The parade started. There they all were, the stars: the clever, bright, bold equines, with their ears pricked, ready for the test to come. They were all so beautiful, so fit, so gleaming with health.
Jamie Moore settled Sire De Grugy back in the pack, as they went off at a furious pelt. It was an intelligent, instinctive, brave ride. He’s only a young jockey, but he did not panic. He let his fella get into a lovely rhythm, and did not hassle him. You could see the trust between horse and rider. But as the pounding hooves ate up the green turf, and the sinews stretched, and the race started to take shape, I worried. There was a lot of ground to make up.
Sire De Grugy had his sensible hat on today. He did not take chances. He fiddled a couple, and then jumped neatly and economically, out of his stride. He seemed to know that this was not the time for showboating.
And suddenly, miraculously, against the odds, he was the only horse in the race, coming to the last with a ton in hand, romping away up the hill, as if it were his favourite place in the world. He won going away, like a really, really good horse.
The place erupted. My mother and I, who had been shouting our heads off, hugged each other and burst into synchronised tears. At the course, hats and newspapers were flying through the air. ‘I love him to pieces,’ Jamie Moore said, without let or hindrance, on national television, falling on his horse’s neck. Jockeys are hard men, in body and spirit. But they are not ashamed to use the word love, because that is what it is. The losing riders gathered round him, clapping him on the back, kissing him on the cheek. Love was everywhere. It was a win that was richly deserved and properly celebrated.
As the horse and rider walked back to the winning enclosure, all the jockeys came out of the weighing room and formed a guard of honour to greet them. Sam Twiston-Davies and Aidan Coleman were hoisted onto shoulders, waving and smiling and laughing their heads off. I’ve never seen that, ever, in racing. My mother, who remembers Arkle and Mill House, has never seen that. There was something about this, perhaps because it was the underdog, perhaps because the Moores work so hard and really deserve it, perhaps because the horse himself has never quite had his due, that brought out an unprecedented reaction. All etiquette was flung aside, as the Duchess of Cornwall, presenting the cup, had a scarf in the owners’ colours draped round her neck. She too was laughing fit to bust. Everything was in chaos, as joy overtook the day.
It was one of the best things I ever saw in my life.
And just as I thought there was no more emotion left in me, it was time for Balthazar King, in the cross-country. He is one of my favourite horses in training, because he is so genuine and he jumps so gloriously and he adores Cheltenham as if it is his spiritual home. But today, even this course specialist was up against it, as he shouldered top weight, on ground softer than he likes. The Irish raider was out to get him, and there were people who said Big Shu was nailed on.
In the glancing sun, my darling old Balthazar jumped and galloped and danced. His rider, Richard Johnson, one of the great gentlemen of the weighing room, and a horseman to his bones, cut corners and found a perfect stride and kept his bonny fella in a lovely rhythm.
Balthazar King hit the front, and they were coming for him, coming for him, up that treacherous hill. The weight would get him, the ground would get him, Any Currency was finishing like a freight train. The winning post would not, could not, come in time. I was bawling my head off. Stanley the Dog was barking fit to bust. My mother was roaring. And Balthazar King, one of the most honest, admirable, true horses you will ever see, back at his beloved Cheltenham, kept his dear nose in front, and flashed past the post by a short head, after almost four gruelling miles.
I run out of words for love.
The sun shone again, literally, metaphorically. The stars glittered in their orbits. The dreams came true.
I’m breaking all my copyright rules one more time. I had to show you this picture, because here is the joy. I hope the Press Association will forgive me: