At three o’clock this afternoon, the Tingle Creek will be run at Sandown. It’s one of the most exciting races in the calendar, run at a furious gallop over fences which test chasers to their limits. Sandown has a famous sequence of seven fences in the back straight, which come up in quick succession. Jockeys always say that if you get the stride right at the first one, the horses will pick up perfectly down the line. Miss that crucial stride, and you’re in trouble. It requires class, accuracy and courage and it has been won by some of the greatest names in racing, from Desert Orchid to Moscow Flyer, Kauto Star to Sizing Europe, Master Minded to Sprinter Sacre. That is a roll call of dazzling brilliance.
Today, one of my favourite horses, Sire De Grugy lines up to defend his crown. He won the race in 2013 and then again in 2015 but after that he slightly lost his way. Instead of ones and twos by his name, there were suddenly sevens and eights. Perhaps he’d had his glittering days, and was facing, as all horses do, a gentle decline as age caught up with him.
Then, a couple of weeks ago at Ascot, he was suddenly back, winning a good handicap off top weight. The old fella had life in him yet.
This afternoon, he’ll have the young pretenders snapping at his heels. The thrilling front-runner Un De Sceaux may be coming into his prime at the age of eight, God’s Own is in his pomp, and the exciting Ar Mad, the baby of the field, is stepping up from novice company where he drove all before him. My head says that it all might happen a bit quick for him. He’ll be eleven next month and this race is all about speed. My heart says perhaps the grand campaigner has one more great battle in him.
I love him because he’s an honest, brave horse who loves his racing. When he’s on song, he attacks his fences, ears pricked, all guts and glory. I love him because he is a family horse, trained by Gary Moore and ridden by his son Jamie, who describes the horse as his best friend. They do everything together. I love him because he’s owned not by a billionaire or a potentate, but by a group of working people whose enthusiasm knows no bounds, who are as gracious in defeat as they are charming in victory.
He may not win today, but I hope he runs his race and comes home safe. He’s given his fans so much pleasure and he owes us nothing.
And for the real racing aficionados, here is a bonus blog -
Two years ago, Sire De Grugy won the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and I wrote about that. These were the glory days, and I make no apology for reproducing the story here. On Saturdays, I always feel I can indulge myself on the blog. I adore this horse, and he deserves his hymn of praise.
Here it is, from March 2014:
There is a horse called Sire De Grugy, owned by a group of people who include plumbers and hairdressers, who only have this one horse. Compared to the mighty guns who arrive for the festival, the millionaires and billionaires with their shining strings of stars, these were relative underdogs. Yet, there was a serious chance that the rangy, athletic chestnut with the shining white blaze could step into the spotlight.
He’s been winning beautifully all season. On the book, he was the one to beat in the Champion Chase, the finest test of the two mile chaser. But the doubts started to swarm. He had been beaten twice at Cheltenham, and horses for courses is a cast-iron rule. Also, he had had a long season, running some races in heavy ground, which can take it out of even the finest athlete by the time spring comes around. And my own private worry was that he could be almost too bold over his fences, really attacking them, taking off a mile away, reaching over the birch with his raking front feet scything through the air. At Prestbury Park, at top speed, against the best, there is no room for error. I fretted that his very bravery might be his undoing.
The emotion was almost too much for me. He’s such a bright, bonny horse. He’s such a trier. His trainer and jockey are father and son, so there was the whole family romance of the thing. His owners are the most enthusiastic, happy, sporting bunch you could imagine. They had said before the race that it was enough just to be here. There is no greed or grasp in them. I wanted this result more than diamonds. I threw my cash on out of loyalty and love more than flinty judgement, and hid behind the sofa.
The sun shone. The parade started. There they all were, the stars: the clever, bright, bold equines, with their ears pricked, ready for the test to come. They were all so beautiful, so fit, so gleaming with health.
Jamie Moore settled Sire De Grugy back in the pack, as they went off at a furious pelt. It was an intelligent, instinctive, brave ride. He’s still a young jockey, but he did not panic. He let his fella get into a lovely rhythm, and did not hassle him. You could see the trust between horse and rider. But as the pounding hooves ate up the green turf, and the sinews stretched, and the race started to take shape, I worried. There was a lot of ground to make up.
Sire De Grugy had his sensible hat on today. He did not take chances. He fiddled a couple, and then jumped neatly and economically, out of his stride. He seemed to know that this was not the time for showboating.
And suddenly, miraculously, he was the only horse in the race, coming to the last with a ton in hand, romping away up the hill, as if it were his favourite place in the world. He won going away, like a really, really good horse.
The place erupted. My mother and I, who had been shouting our heads off, hugged each other and burst into synchronised tears. At the course, hats and newspapers were flying through the air. ‘I love him to pieces,’ Jamie Moore said, falling on his horse’s neck. Jockeys are hard men, in body and spirit. But they are not ashamed to use the word love, because that is what it is. The losing riders gathered round him, clapping him on the back, kissing him on the cheek. Love was everywhere. It was a win that was richly deserved and properly celebrated.
As the horse and rider walked back to the winning enclosure, all the jockeys came out of the weighing room and formed a guard of honour to greet them. Sam Twiston-Davies and Aidan Coleman were hoisted onto shoulders, waving and smiling and laughing their heads off. I’ve never seen that, ever, in racing. My mother, who remembers Arkle and Mill House, has never seen that. There was something about this, perhaps because it was the underdog, perhaps because the Moores work so hard and really deserve it, perhaps because the horse himself has never quite had his due, that brought out an unprecedented reaction. All etiquette was flung aside, as the Duchess of Cornwall, presenting the cup, had a scarf in the owners’ colours draped round her neck. She too was laughing fit to bust. Everything was in chaos, as joy overtook the day.
It was one of the best things I ever saw in my life.
PS. I can't give you a Sire De Grugy photograph, because of copyright, so I've included a snap of my own red champion, furry and soft and dreaming in her Scottish field.