Thursday, 17 March 2016

The old king rises. An equine story and a human story.

The old king, sagely, calmly, and without fuss, took back his crown. He saw the outstretched grasp of the young pretender, shook his wise old head, and said: ‘No, no, not yet.’
            I had convinced myself it could not be done. I did not even dare to hope. But Sprinter Sacre shone like the stars in the sky. He soared over the early fences, with that extraordinary, almost ethereal action I remembered so well. Un De Sceaux scampers along like a little terrier, his head down, his colours nailed to the mast. Sprinter seems to defy the laws of physics – when he meets a fence just right and launches over it, it is as if he goes into slow motion. He is stately and grand and fine and entirely other.
            As I watched those early leaps, a tiny hope rose, like a bird in my chest.
            But no, no, it could not be done. Surely, it was too much to ask.
            At the top of the hill it seemed that the new kid, all fearless youth, convinced of his own immortality, was running away with it. But then they turned the bend and the old Sprinter unfurled like a flower in springtime, ranging upsides, astonishingly, impossibly, going on.
            He went on, and he kept on. Nobody, on this day of days, could catch him. The grand monarch was, once more, in his rightful place, emperor of all he surveyed.
            I cried and shouted. The crowd cried and shouted. Anyone with a human heart cried and shouted. The roof lifted off the stands, as one of the great comeback stories in racing history revealed itself before their joyful eyes.
            In all this grand equine story, there was a quiet human one.
            Sprinter Sacre was ridden by a young jockey called Nico De Boinville. He is not a household name, even though he won the Gold Cup last year with an audacious front-running ride. He was, for a long time, the very definition of a backroom boy. He rode Sprinter in all his work when the horse was in his pomp, and then stepped back to let Barry Geraghty take the ride in public.
            He rode in races as an amateur, then took out his license, and, when Geraghty was taken on as retained jockey to JP McManus, replacing the retiring AP McCoy, started to get more and more of the Nicky Henderson rides. He had worked for Henderson for long enough, and the guvnor must have seen something in him, because he was up on the proper horses.
            I spent a lot of time, in my yelping, exuberant racing tweets, complimenting de Boinville on his skills. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. He is cool under pressure, brave, thoughtful, and a proper horseman.
            As Sprinter Sacre started out on his improbable comeback trail, de Boinville got the gig. He dealt with the weight of expectation and guided the good horse to victory both times. But yesterday was a whole other kettle of fish.
            I can’t tell you how hard it is to ride a fit thoroughbred in a race. There is half a ton of athletic flight animal under you, a sea of imponderables before you, split second decisions, crucial tactical moves, high speed, unforgiving obstacles, and an ambulance trundling along behind to pick up the pieces. That’s just on a wet Wednesday at Wincanton. The armchair jocks, who have never ridden so much as a bicycle, laugh and scoff and call you names when you fall off at the last.
            At Cheltenham, with the eyes of the world upon you, you are going faster and harder than you’ve ever gone in your life. There is no room for error. The other jockeys, pumped up for the big occasion, give no quarter. I’ve heard good riders speak in shock about their first experience of the festival.
            De Boinville carried the stretched hopes of a vast sporting crowd, who would have given anything to see Sprinter Sacre defy the odds, rewrite the history books, and turn over the hot favourite. He had the responsibility to that good guvnor who had given him his chance, to the hopeful owner, to the fine horse under him.
            But none of that is the human story.
            The story is that Nico De Boinville’s mother died, two weeks ago.
            I thought of my own mother, as that grand horse strode up the hill, the king back in his castle. I thought of how she would have loved it and how she would have wept along with me. I missed her horribly, and regretted bitterly that she could not see her hero back to his swaggering best.
All I had to do was watch and wonder and shout and weep. That jockey had to do the business. Two weeks after my mother died, last October, I could hardly go to the shop. This man just won the Champion Chase.
            I knew none of this in the build-up to the race. The Channel Four Racing team, perhaps sensitive to grief, did not mention it, even by vague implication. I was struck, when they cut to a shot of De Boinville in the weighing room, by how sombre he looked. His eyes were distant and unfocused; his face grave. I thought he was bowed by the weight of all that hope and expectation. I think now that he was thinking of his mother.
            Immediately after the wining post, he rose briefly in his stirrups, his expression set and serious, almost defiant. His face did not split into the great, glorious Cheltenham grin. (When Ruby Walsh rides a winner at the festival, you can actually see his smile from high up in the stands, gleaming like a lighthouse beam.) For a moment, de Boinville wore an air of weary gravity. He bowed his head, almost as if in defeat.
            The microphone was held up to him, with welcoming, enthusiastic congratulation. He tried to gather himself, to say something to the waiting public. After a few stuttering sentences – ‘I’m speechless about that; he means so much to us’ -  he said ‘Can I just say a big thank you to all our close friends and family and to the wider racing community? We’ve had a really tough past month with my family and this is just, uh, the icing on the cake. And I’m very happy.’ His voice failed and he moved his horse away, and then there was a smile for the cameras, bittersweet, slightly forced, joy and sorrow in it.
            I write all the time about the bravery of these horses and these jockeys. It is why I love them so much. It is why I love racing so much. My father was a brave man, who, years ago, flew up the Cheltenham hill twice in the Kim Muir. I spent my childhood with that physical courage.
            But this was a different kind of bravery, a different, more muted, more profound story of sheer guts.

            I don’t know what gave Sprinter Sacre wings yesterday. A brilliant, dauntless trainer, who simply refused to give up and who pulled off a training feat for the ages, a group of dazzling experts in equine health, the devoted team at Seven Barrows, those unsung heroes who rise at dawn to look after him, come rain, come shine – all played their part. Perhaps it was just his day. Many horses have their day, when everything simply falls right and the stars align. He had a damn good jockey, who rises to the big occasion, for all his youth. But the romantic in me, the dreamer in me, the griever in me, wonders if somehow, somewhere in his sage, horsey old head, Sprinter knew that Nico De Boinville was riding this race for his mum.


  1. That's a beautiful thought Tania. Thank you.
    I've never followed horse racing (my only exposure growing up was my gran's annual bet on the Grand National), but your writing makes me feel the excitement and love.

  2. Oh wow, that last line made me cry! What a beautiful and poignant story.

  3. Typing through tears...... Your writing is so lovely.

  4. Oh Tania you write beautifully about everything but I love your racing thoughts best. I thought of you yesterday. X

  5. What a magnificent post, on so many levels. Thank you for this.

  6. The best report I've read on the Champion Chase. Because of the empathy for Nico. How on earth did he hold it together.


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