Saturday, 18 June 2016

Theatre of dreams. Or, there is no such thing as only a horse.

The sweetest moment yesterday was when the ravishing filly Quiet Reflection put her dear head in front and ran straight and true to the line. Her honesty and straightness were decisive, as her nearest rival veered across the track, throwing away his chance. The sweetness was not just because she is a very good, very lovely girl. It was because she was owned not by someone with millions in the bank, or someone who heads a whole country, but by a syndicate of Yorkshire owners. 

They were, as one commentator said, ‘ordinary people’. They went to Ascot with hope in their hearts, and their fine filly made their dream come true. Watching the finish, they forgot any idea of occasion and protocol and went bonkers, leaping in the air, hollering, hugging each other, crying tears of joy. 

Everyone was crying tears of joy. Quiet Reflection’s lad was weeping on national television; apparently afterwards he said ruefully that he hoped his mates would not have seen that, or he would never hear the end of it. Her jockey, Dougie Costello, was also crying openly. ‘I’m getting a bit emotional,’ he said, wiping his face. This time last year, he was riding in bumpers at Market Rasen. He switched codes from the jumps to the flat, and suddenly, here he was, on the biggest stage of all. When he went to collect his prize, he took his tiny daughter on to the podium with him. She sat contentedly in her father’s arms, too young to know that she would be hearing about this grand moment for years to come.

It might seem a little odd, all this emotion. These are toughened professionals, after all. They get up every morning with the dawn, and they know that this is a job of highs and lows, of dashed hopes, of forgotten dreams. For all the pomp of the Royal Meeting, it is still a day at the office. But they start planning for this when the young horses come in with the stirring of the spring. They start thinking about Ascot when the old campaigners return from their winter break. They watch and hope and plan and plot. They look for the confirmation of class, for the sudden flash of unheralded brilliance, for that little bit of work on the quiet gallops that might change everything. Everyone would like to win a good race at Newmarket or York or Goodwood, but the Royal Meeting is the pinnacle, the theatre of dreams, the place unlike anywhere else. ‘It’s why we get out of bed in the morning,’ the jockeys say. And that is why you see hard men in tears.

Today, one of the people I love most in the world has a hoof of a horse who is lining up to take his chance. She is part of one of those syndicates, another one of those ‘ordinary people’ (although of course there is nothing ordinary about her at all; she is a most remarkable human). She rings me from the car, her voice rather tremulous. ‘I’m trying to contain the emotion,’ she says.

‘I was trying to contain the emotion,’ I say. ‘But that ship has sailed.’

Her fella is a handsome, bonny horse, with an intelligent outlook and a genuine heart. He’s not very big, but he is beautifully put together, and he’s got a lovely temperament. He listens to his jockey, who can put him anywhere in a race. He’s got a chance. I’ll be trembling in the preliminaries, and shouting my head off in the race. ‘It’s Ascot,’ I keep say to my old friend. ‘Anything could happen. Let’s just hope he runs his race and comes home safe.’

‘Yes,’ she says, trying to be very grown-up and sensible. ‘It’s enough of a treat that we are even here.’

It’s only a race, some people might say. Some people might say: it’s only a horse. Some people are right, logically speaking. But the heart, which is not logical, knows that there is no such thing as only a horse. 

A thoroughbred, all fleetness and beauty and courage, can make the spirit soar like nothing else. I rode my own dear mare this morning, after a long time off. I’ve had a sore back, and we went very gently. She gave me her best dowager duchess canter, moving tenderly and smoothly as if she knew that my poor old body could not take a jar. 

She is closely related to all those mighty creatures who will be flying over the turf today, but she went as softly and slowly as a seasoned cow pony. She’s still an Aston Martin, but she was happy to go along in second gear. That feeling of controlled power, the kindness and peace flowing out of her fine body, the harmony of horse and human is like nothing else. It is elemental, visceral, beyond words or thought. No such thing, I think, as I get off and lead her back to her paddock, as only a horse. 


  1. 'only a horse' is the reason I'm even still here to make this comment. 'only a horse' is the source of the hope, delight & confidence that veterans leave HorseBack UK with. 'only a horse' is the therapy, freedom & confidence to so many disabled children around the world. I could go on indefinitely, but does any of that really sound like 'only' anything? You are so right, there's no such thing as 'only' a horse.

  2. Quiet Reflection was very dear to see.

    Thought of you the other day when reading a couple of tweets by an American pedigree consultant who used to write for the Racing Form: "I'd hazard a guess that there's been only one sire in history of sport that's sired winners of Derbys in KY, Ireland, England, France. And he stood in KY. Nijinsky."

  3. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. As always x


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