Yesterday, the mighty mare set the stands on a roar. Annie Power confounded her doubters, and showed the boys how it should be done. Douvan dazzled and dumbfounded and delighted with his sheer, untrammelled brilliance. And dear Vroum Vroum Mag, the most matter-of-fact horse in racing, gently rolled up the hill as if she were going out for a nice day with the Galway Blazers.
Today, the story is of two great old kings.
A year ago today, I stood in a quiet backwater, as, thirty yards away, a raucous, swelling, shouting party went on. The sounds of triumph from the winner’s enclosure floated on the air. In the melancholy stretch of grass where the losers go to unsaddle, hidden away as if to conceal their shame from prying eyes, stood a small group of worried humans and one very downbeat horse. It was the grand Sprinter Sacre, brought low.
Sprinter Sacre used to win at Cheltenham as if he were out for a schooling canter. He is an emperor of a horse, and he owned this place. Prestbury Park was his, and the crowd saluted him for it. He had a swagger and a power and an exuberance, and good people tipped their hat to him, knowing he was one of those once-in-a-generation horses.
Then it all went wrong. He pulled up with a heart murmur and it was suspected that we might never see him again. But Nicky Henderson, despite his smiling affability, has a core of steel, and he would not give in so easily. He threw experts and vets and professors and the kitchen sink at the problem. Slowly, slowly, Sprinter started to come back.
But last year he was a pale shadow of his former self and I looked at that deposed monarch with keen, sad eyes, certain I would never again see him in his pomp. I thought they must retire him; that his race was indeed run.
This season, to my amazement, he was back again. He was growing in strength and confidence. If the swagger was not quite back, the talent was still visible. He came out and won. Then he won again. He had to scrap for it a little bit, which he had never done before, but I took that as a sign that his heart, literally and figuratively, was mended.
Now he returns to the place of his greatest festival triumphs, and if he could pull it out of the bag today, the roof would come off the stands, he is so brilliant and beloved.
But he is up against one of the most complete natural talents in chasing, in the dashing Un De Sceaux. Un De Sceaux roars off in front, eats his fences for breakfast, and says catch me if you can. It’s a fairly high-risk strategy, and he has been known to tip up, but last time at Ascot he was polished and professional and devastatingly strong. He probably will win. He probably should win. Passing the crown from the old king to the new king is one of the great traditions of jump racing.
Sprinter owes us nothing. He has delighted us enough. I would weep tears of disbelief and joy if he could pull off the miracle, bask once more in the sunshine of the Cheltenham love. But really, I just want to see him happy, conducting himself with honour, coming home safe.
In the next race, the heartstrings will be pulled even harder. The new king of the cross-country race is the determined and dogged Josies Orders who sticks his neck out and charges up the hill after many long miles. He’s ridden by Nina Carberry, as brave and dauntless as her horse.
But there, below him in the betting, is the old monarch – the adored Balthazar King. Balthazar loves Cheltenham like no horse I ever saw. He’s won over the regulation fences; he made the cross-country his own. He lights up when he comes to Prestbury Park. Then they sent him to the Grand National and he was cannoned into by another horse, breaking his ribs. He received devoted care at the Liverpool hospital and then went for a long, healing summer at his owner’s farm.
The master that is Philip Hobbs has nursed him back to health and here he is again. He’s a big, strong, handsome, honest horse, and he doesn’t know how to run a bad race. He did not scale the dizzy heights of Sprinter Sacre, but he’s almost more loved, because he’s so genuine, such a standing dish, as good and reliable as a Swiss Watch.
I think his mountain is an even steeper one to climb than Sprinter’s. He’s twelve now, and he would be getting ready to pass on his crown even without his injury. His old partner Richard Johnson will look after him, and if for a moment he feels something is not quite right, he’ll pull him up. But oh, if that brave horse could glitter and gleam once again, it would be my shining moment of the festival.
I love the new kings. There is something viscerally thrilling about watching young horses leap into their own brilliant future, as if they know that the sky is the limit. But the old kings, those grand, sage rulers of all they once surveyed, they are the ones who fill my heart like nothing else.