Saturday, 9 April 2016

Bittersweet. Or, reflections on the Grand National.

My friend in the shop who keeps the Racing Post for me each Saturday is a great betting man. This morning, I run into him as I go to pick up my paper and we fall with delight to discussing the wonders of Many Clouds, the each-way chances of Goonyella, the staying prospects of Silviniaco Conti, and whether Black Thunder might give Sam Waley-Cohen a nice spin round. ‘He hasn’t quite got the form in the book,’ I say. ‘But I’ve got a sort of feeling. Sam Waley-Cohen has the best record over the Aintree fences of any jockey riding.’ 

My friend gives me one of his glimmering sidelong looks. ‘It’s the Grand National,’ he says. ‘Anything could happen.’

I am so excited that I point out Many Clouds, whose picture adorns the front page of the Racing Post, to the ladies at the till and try to explain the true glory of him, what a brave, honest horse he is, and how his trainer was an old friend of my late father. ‘It almost feels like family,’ I say, in a burst of exuberance.

One of the ladies, who is also my friend, smiles in appreciation. But the other one, whom I don’t really know because she is usually in the back office running the show, looks at me coldly and says: ‘I think it is cruel. That racing over fences.’ She makes an expression of ultimate disgust.

That is one big bucket of cold water. I look at her, uncertain. ‘Well,’ I say, rather quietly. ‘I grew up in it, you see. I saw how happy the horses were. It was my father’s life’s work.’

I felt very sad for quite a long time after this. I had been so happy when I got up, as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Now I plodded home in the dour Scottish rain, demoralised and deflated.

It’s just one person, I thought. The Grand National always makes some people cross. Everyone must have their opinion. Because if there is one thing I believe in as much as I believe in the gallant heart of Many Clouds, the bone-deep horsemanship of Leighton Aspell, the enduring talent and honourable spirit of Oliver Sherwood, it is freedom of expression. Everyone must think and say what they will.

But I could not shrug it off. I tried to make the argument in my head. I’ve done this many times, because every time I see a horse get injured in a race I turn away in sorrow and despair, and I have to talk myself down off the ceiling.

Horses can injure themselves, sometimes fatally, in the field, on a quiet road, even in their stables, if they get cast. A sudden colic, a ruthless infection, a brutal grass sickness can finish them off. I’ve spent the last three weeks bracing myself for the possibility that my own little bay mare could die, even though she was in the hands of the best vet and the best surgeon in Scotland, and although she is now on the mend she is not quite out of the woods.

Nobody sees those injuries and deaths on television, and so nobody makes a fuss about them. But they still exist. I think of all the horses who endure a living death, the riding school ponies booted about by people with no feeling for the sensitive equine mind, the sad livery cases who sit in the stables bored witless until their owner comes to visit once a week. I think: if I were a horse, I would like to be one of those racing athletes, fit as twenty-seven fiddles, fed and groomed and exercised to perfection, flying over the Lambourn downs on those dazzling mornings I remember so well from my childhood, with the larks on the wing and the scent of freedom in the air.

I think: no human can make a half-ton flight animal do anything it does not want to do. The dear old Mad Moose, who became beloved for his ornery character and most determined ideas, told his humans very clearly that he no longer liked racing when he took to refusing to start. He was actually rather good at running at speed over jumps, but one day, just like that, he had had enough. The humans tried this and tried that and eventually believed that he meant what he said. Now he does dressage, and he is as happy as a bug. He was not being silly or naughty, he was merely expressing his own opinion, and luckily he had people who listened to him.

But all this is the rational side of it. It could not lift my bashed spirits. I still felt sad and crushed. I suddenly realised what it was. The childish, emotional, irrational part of me says, when the antis come out: you are calling my father a monster. You are calling all those grand racing titans from my childhood years – J Lawrence, Fred Winter, Fulke Walwyn, Dave Dick, Eddy Harty – those giants of the game I remember as lovely, funny, kind gentlemen, on whose knees I sat before I even knew what a Grand National was, let alone that some of them had won it, sadists and brutes. And that breaks my heart.

I know that is not precisely what is happening, but that is what it feels like. 

My father’s horses were happy horses. I wonder how many people who shout about cruelty have ever been to a National Hunt yard. I wonder whether they have gone into a box before dawn and woken one of those sleeping athletes, heard the low whicker of greeting, seen the soft, wise, liquid eye, stroked the majestic neck. I wonder whether they have watched them mosey out for first lot, swinging down the lane on the buckle, pricking their ears as they turn up to the gallops. I wonder whether they have gone down to the yard in the quiet time before evening stables, and seen the beautiful thoroughbreds dozing in the afternoon sun, at ease with themselves and the world. I wonder whether they have witnessed the care and thought and love that goes into these equine lives.

I was going to write a joyful, absurd, dancing blog today, about my adoration for Many Clouds, about my memories of going to the great race with my father, when we used to run into the Irish at the Adelphi and have a party and then go out on the course at seven-thirty the next day to see the horses stretch their legs, when it seemed that half the racing world was gathered in the morning mist and everyone had a tot of brandy in their coffee as a little heart-starter. (I don’t think they do that any more. I’m perfectly certain that Willie Mullins does not break out the cognac before breakfast. He is far too busy piling up Grade Ones and wearing his special hat)

It turns out that this is a different kind of writing, much more bitter-sweet. I feel the loss of my parents very much on big race days, and the unexpected cross word in the shop hit that enduring bruise and left its mark. But then all sweet has a little bitter in it. That, says the resigned, been-round-the-block voice in my head, is life. 


  1. Absolutely wonderful post Tania - thank you once again for expressing so eloquently the beauty of racing and the pain of loss. Know that I too will be watching the race surrounded by the ghosts of my dear departeds. xxxJane

  2. They all came back this year. And if the horses don't love it, why do the loose ones still keep going round, over the biggest fences imaginable? There was a riderless horse out in front for a good way this year, so no-one could claim it was just following the herd.

    The comment this morning was meant to deflate, to puncture the balloon of the conversation; there may be a reason why this lady is usually in the back - she is lacking in people skills, perhaps. Pay it no heed!

  3. 'It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply'. I really feel for you today and your writing and viewpoint makes so much sense to me and I'm afraid I have always thought, rather narrow in the mind, like the lady who voiced her opinion today. You've brought an entirely new perspective to me. Thank you.

  4. I'm thanking you too.
    It pains me to see horses hurt in the field -- whether it's flat bed racing or what seem to be the "more dangerous" sports of eventing (is that the correct term?) or steeplechase.
    It's mostly through reading your blog that I've come to know just how delicate these beautiful creatures are. It tears me up when one of them has to be put down because of an accident, yet I hear what you're saying: they wouldn't be competing if they didn't love it...and that always involves risks. So does "living". (A friend's beautiful mare was here one moment, gone the next because of colic. Nothing the vet could do to stop it. These "things" just happen...)

  5. There is a difference between being able to force a horse to do something dangerous, and asking a horse to do something dangerous because we know they love us and will do it if we ask.

    While colic and other illnesses happen, one would have to admit that a horse is a lot less likely to die from having to be put down because of compound fractures if they are not steeplechasing.

    Yes, everyone dies of something... but those who regularly put themselves in harm's way tend to die sooner. Someone who never goes skydiving will most likely never die because their parachute didn't open.

    I'm sure your father and his fellow titans were wonderful people, and that they loved their horses and took fantastic care of them. There are racehorse owners who do not, however - who drug their horses to enhance their performance, and further endanger their health. To fairly consider the impact of an entire sport, one cannot just limit one's evaluation to one or two or five wonderful people that we know. We must also take into consideration the greedy, manipulative, power-hungry people who view animals as money-making ventures.

    I suppose, at the core, I'm just against any activity that values human enjoyment above the animal's safety. I can no more help the way I feel about this than I can change my ancestry. It's more than bone deep.

    I'm sure that there are people who enjoy being disgusted, make a big show of their opinions. I'm not one of them. It just makes me sad, so I don't watch racing or support it monetarily.

    That doesn't stop me reading and enjoying your blog. I think you're a fabulous person, and I enjoy hearing about your volunteer work, your horses, and your dogs. You'll forgive me for skipping over the racing posts, but everything else is marvy!

  6. Thanks for writing this. It's good to remember and great to remember well. Please carry on doing it. The way I look at it, is that the shop-lady gets to have her opinion, and we are all allowed to be wrong at some point - that's what it means to be human - and that's what you write about so eloquently. Her opinion about racing is hers and it was sad that she put it as she did. Maybe she'll reflect on what she did, maybe she won't. Please don't let her stop your enjoyment.


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