The unsaddling enclosure at Cheltenham is one of the loneliest places in the world. It is here that the broken shards of hopes and dreams quietly swept away.
In that little square of green grass, as the cheers for Dodging Bullets and Sam Twiston-Davies rumbled from the winner's enclosure, a big black horse walked round whilst a small, huddled group of humans gazed at him in puzzlement and worry. The vet was there, smart in his tweed suit, but there did not seem to be anything wrong with the horse. He looked quite calm, not bothered by anything, just a little muted perhaps.
Sprinter Sacre was once a dancing, dazzling, gleaming champion, who could set sixty thousand people on a roar without moving out of second gear. And now, here he was, pulled up in the race he used to win by seventeen lengths.
In the pre-parade ring, he had looked magnificent. He was the same gleaming physical specimen that has delighted so many people for so long. Oddly, it was Dodging Bullets who would not knock your eye out, a little tucked up, a tiny bit starey in his coat. People said he was not a spring horse, and I thought he looked a little out of sorts. So much I know: he flew up the hill, whilst Sprinter laboured behind, and Barry Geraghty, who would never let anything happen to that horse, called it a day.
I had braced myself for the fact that the great champion had gone, but it's a melancholy thing to see. Of course a secret part of me hoped he would lift his head, hear the roar, and romp back to his rightful place. Yesterday was the day of fairy tales; today, under a surly sky, with Cleeve Hill doleful in the gloom, was the day of reality.
I hope they retire Sprinter. I hope they find him something useful to do, because he's an active intelligent horse who needs a job; something not too taxing for the old ticker; something that will make him prick his ears and feel pride in himself. He always had a swagger about him, a hint of peacock preen. He'd need a little acclamation and applause from time to time.
Sire de Grugy also had to cede his crown, but I think he will be back. The ground was a bit quick and his preparation has been unorthodox and he's still got the fire in his belly.
Perhaps the most bittersweet of all was watching dear old Sizing Europe. He really was the pick of the paddock, looking more like seven than fourteen, gazing up at the gathered crowd with bright interest, lighting up the gloomy day. He bowled along for a while, reminding me of glory days past, and then it all got a bit fast for his old legs and he faded. But in that unsaddling enclosure, in contrast to the sadly shaking heads of the Sprinter connections, Sizing Europe's lad was wreathed in smiles, and Henry De Bromhead was giving him affectionate congratulatory pats. 'Ah,' said the lad, 'he's had a grand day out.'
One lady had come especially to see him, and was taking pictures, ruthlessly igoring the Nicholls victory party going on only fifty yards away. She obviously loved Sizing Europe and that was who she had come to see. She was allowed to pat the glorious old fella on the neck and her smile was that of a child who has been granted an unprecedented treat. The travelling head lass smiled too, as Sizing Europe skittered about, his ears pricked towards the applause that once was his: 'I'm afraid he's not very good at standing still,' she said. He was once very, very good at running fast, and he's still full of the joys and entirely undismayed by defeat, so perhaps they'll find him a race or two yet.
In contrast to Ruby Tuesday, when I could not back a loser, it was a day of defeats. My lovely Kings Palace looked his usual ravishing self, and went off with dash and purpose and I thought he would delight as he has all season, but he folded tamely, in the mysterious way that thoroughbreds sometimes do. It was a day of different pleasures to the first day. Just seeing dear Kings Palace had to be enough; the soaring victory I had hoped for was not to be. I really, really wanted the Champ to have a winner, so I could roar him up the hill, and the crowd could go crazy nuts in the head, and the valedictory cries of AP could ring round the Cotwsold hills. But he rode no winners, and seeing that familiar determined figure in real life for the last time, trying to imprint him on my memory so I could bore the great-nieces and nephews, making mental snapshots that I could bring out on a rainy day, also had to be enough.
Despite the fact that I bang on about ignoring the humans and going to see the horses, I did run into two of my favourite humans in the world. Both were huge racing fans in their teens and early twenties. I used to go with one of them to Sandown and Kempton and Newbury; we watched Desert Orchid together on his high days and holidays, when people would throw hats, newspapers, scarves, anything, in the air, and commentators went made with superlatives. The other I would see at every race meeting I attended, his eyes lit with dreams of glory.
Both of them took their passion and decided to make it their job. Doing what you love is great advice but very hard, but they both did it. They both say, with slight amazement, that they are living the dream. One is a trainer, and one a bloodstock agent. One had just come back from Meydan, where his most beloved old handicapper had just won a huge race, and one secretly believes that he might, just might, have bought the winner of this year's Derby. And only ten minutes ago we were all twenty together, wondering whether Desert Orchid could ever shake off his Cheltenham bad luck and finally win the Gold Cup.
They bought me pints of Guinness and the years rolled away and I called them my boys because even though we are all nearly fifty, they will always be boys to me.
The other amazing human thing was that, in a crowd of thousands, I bumped into the equine photographer I most admire after the untouchable Edward Whitaker. Michael Harris is not even a professional; he takes time off from his day job to take photographs of horses for love. Some of them are so beautiful they make me catch my breath. I've followed him on Facebook for a while and suddenly there he was, buying a cup of coffee from the same stall as I.
I've tried to take some pictures this week and I can tell you that catching good shots on a racecourse is one of the hardest things I've ever attempted. It's one thing, getting the red mare looking enchanting in her quiet field; it's quite another in a moving, teeming, crowded place, with the light seeming always to come from the wrong direction and everybody always moving about in a most disobliging way.
I take my hat off to Michael, who has taken his passion for horses and his passion for photography and made them into something very wonderful.
It was not Ruby Tuesday. It was more contemplative and less giddy. There was grit in the oyster. But without the grit, there is no pearl.
And when I got home, after thinking all this, and getting it all sorted out in my mind, I found that the one thing I had been saying all day had in fact happened. David Pipe won the bumper. And I had been on first thing at 8-1.
I laughed and laughed and laughed.
A few snaps for you. If you want to see good ones, go to Michael Harris Photography on Facebook:
When I look at that picture, I think of one of the saddest parts in Out of Africa, when Meryl Streep says something like:
He gave us joy; we loved him well. He was not ours. He was not mine.