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.