Thursday, 16 March 2017

Dream the dream. Or, the inspiring story of Tobefair.

In Carmarthenshire, not far from the Welsh town of Nantycaws, there is a small National Hunt yard of eight horses. In that yard lives a fella called Tobefair. He is not trained by a household name, nor owned by one of the titans of the game, nor did he stalk round a brightly-lit sale ring as the thousands of guineas clocked up before tense eyes. He in fact cost nothing. That’s right. Nothing. Zero pounds. Few things in life are free, but this thoroughbred was. He was given to his owner in the form of barter: Michael Cole looked after a couple of foals for breeder Richard Kent, and in return, Kent gave him Tobefair. Kent told the Racing Post: ‘Tobefair was born in the middle of a recession and we couldn't give him away so I gave him to Michael Cole as a present; there wasn't a penny made out of the horse at any stage of his life. But I'm glad for Michael, he sends us mares every year and is a very nice man.’ To continue the rags to riches theme, Cole decided he could not afford the training fees on his own, so he formed a syndicate with regulars from his local pub, none of whom had ever owned a racehorse before.

In his early days, Tobefair did not know whether it was Christmas or Easter. He was sent off at 100-1 and 40-1 in a couple of his novice races and got beat by a hundred lengths and forty lengths. If you look back at his form you see six inglorious defeats. And then something strange happened. He changed yards, and he started to win. He was still being sent off at 7-1 and 8-1 and 10-1, not exactly backed into hot favouritism, but he started winning and he kept on winning.

It’s hard to know what happened. His new trainer, Debra Hamer, told the papers: ‘the penny dropped’. But you think she is being modest. Quietly, cleverly, patiently, she found the key to this horse who cost nothing, and she sent him out in seven races to seven wins. He went up 62 pounds in his winning spree, and you can imagine the handicapper sitting at home and scratching his head. I don’t think any horse ever has gone up 62 pounds in two seasons.

The other lovely thing about Tobefair is that he is not a showboat. He likes to start off his races at the back, where he promptly goes to sleep. He is not a slick hurdler, flicking through the birch. He’s a sturdy jumper, meeting his obstacles squarely and giving them plenty of air. When other horses are rolling away in front, Tobefair often needs bustling along. It is as if his jockey – almost always Trevor Whelan – needs to say: ‘Come on, fella, we actually are at the races.’ Tobefair sometimes needs to be told this a couple of times, and then he wakes up and shoots forward through the field, almost as if he is having a bit of a laugh. ‘Sorry, Trev,’ he seems to be saying, ‘I didn’t know you were serious.’

And once he and his rider have come to this happy agreement, the bravery and honesty of the horse gleams out like a sunbeam. The questions come, and Tobefair answers every one with a hilarious yes. In his ravishing seven race streak he has won pretty and won ugly. He’s won easing up and he’s won all out. He’s won on good to firm ground in the summer sunshine, and he’s won on heavy in the driving snow. Apparently, at home what he most likes is rolling in the mud. He’s bright and bonny after his races, and eats up with gusto. If he was a person, he’s the kind of chap you’d want by your side on a long road trip or in a tight fix.

And now, after that sixty-two pound leap, after that long winning run, after that funny old start when he couldn’t be given away, this fine, genuine thoroughbred is lining up at Cheltenham, the Olympics of the racing season. Debra Hamer has not only never had a runner at the festival, she’s never even been there. When asked about this she said, cheerfully, that she had young children and no time. The pub syndicate have hired two buses and are probably motoring down the M4 even as you read this, with a song in their hearts.

The festival is the great unknown. Brilliant horses have been undone by the atmosphere and the hurly burly and the murderous hill. Yesterday, Douvan, the nailed-on certainty for the mighty Willie Mullins and the dazzling Ruby Walsh, reached for the first three fences, never found a rhythm, and packed up. Tobfair could take one look and say: no thank you. He’s had a couple of hard enough races lately and they could leave their mark. He has not met competitors of the calibre he will see today. He could try his heart out and it might not be enough. In a way, simply getting there is the story of the season. And yet, I can see him shaking his sweet ears and thinking: damn it all, let’s have a go. I can see him galloping on when others have cried enough. I can see his incredible mental attitude and his ability to make a scorching mid-race move standing him in good stead. He’s a strong horse, sturdy in mind and body. I’ve seen him be bashed into and not deviate. I’ve seen him get a bit of a wobble and straighten himself up and run doggedly for the line. He battles and he stays and he does not seem fazed by anything, and those are precious qualities at Prestbury Park.

He was the ante-post favourite, but now he’s on the drift, wandering out to 10-1, as if the serious punters simply can’t believe in fairy tales. The horse that cost nothing can’t land one of the biggest prizes of the season. The people from the pub can’t beat the Rich Riccis and the Michael O’Learys, with their millions and billions, with their financial wizardry and their airlines. The tiny yard can’t compete with the Mullins and Elliot and Henderson and Nicholls battalions.

Or, perhaps they can.

Last year, I wrote a book called The Happy Horse. It sounds a bit hippy and a bit dippy, but I believe that if you can get a horse relaxed and soft and easy in its skin, that horse will give you everything. Not everyone thinks about making their horse happy. They want to win prizes and do flying changes and compete at the highest level and everything else is second best. Happiness, to many people, is a nebulous concept that sounds idiotic when applied to an equine. I think Debra Hamer and her husband, who work very much as a team, understand about making horses happy. Tobefair has all the signs of a half-ton flight animal who is at ease with himself. He does what he does not because he is a brilliant natural talent, but because he is confident, and willing, and responsive. When Trevor says go, go, go, Tobefair says: you betcha, baby.

He might find one or two too good today, as so many hopeful horses have in the past. This meeting is the blue riband, the championship lap, the mountain peak. There is no disgrace in not quite reaching the summit. But if Tobefair could run his race and put his dear nose in front, sixty thousand people will stand to him, with their heads held high and their hats in the air. They will salute him not because he’s odds-on, or streets beyond the rest, or carving his name into the history books, but because he is an honest horse with a fighting heart, who tries his best and gives his all. He’s one for the little people, for the ordinary people, for those who scrap and struggle against the odds, who don’t have the credentials, who aren’t considered the shining stars. He’s one for those who dream of slipping the surly bonds of earth, and dancing the skies, high in the sunlit silence.


(Photograph of Tobefair reproduced with the very kind permission of Michael Harris.)

3 comments:

  1. Ohhh ... I finally, finally got one of your references. The last line! A poem I chose to include in a high school anthology project and liked so much I memorized it for fun and still can recite it... thank you for that.

    As for the rest, horse racing is not really my thing, but you have made me care and made me wonder and hope and I will be watching to see how Tobefair gets along. That is the magic of your writing and, it seem, the magic of this horse.

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    Replies
    1. And I just Googled it, a bit too late for my comment, of course, and found the results. But what a great story!

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  2. Lovely piece. It made me scramble through RacingPost's results to find out the outcome of Tobefair's race, and I was sad to see that today wasn't his day, or perhaps it wasn't his distance. Sad, but only for today. One race, even Cheltenham, whatever, doesn't make or break for me. Think I'm in love. Such an honest face he has ...

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