The thing about Cheltenham is that you’ve got to want everyone to win. My dream horse, my little underdog, could not pull off the fairy tale yesterday; he ran beautifully for a long way and then found it all happening a bit too quick for him. He’ll go home to his field and have a lovely summer holiday and they’ll send him chasing next year. The disappointment bites keenly when your favourite does not come flying home, and then you have to look up and realise that someone else’s dream has come true.
There is always a reason to be thrilled for those dreams. There is the seventeen-year-old who started out riding in pony races in Ireland and stormed up the hill for his first festival win. Seventeen! When I was seventeen I was listening to Leonard Cohen records and weeping over a unrequited love. Even more fantastical, his horse was fifty to one on the morning of the race, because he had a habit of refusing to jump off. Nah, don’t fancy it, he would say, and everyone would have to go home, shaking their heads. They took him to the sands at Laytown, perhaps in an effort to freshen him up and get him interested, and he took one look at the beach and said: you must be joking, I’m not a sodding donkey. In the Supreme, he pricked his ears and gunned his mighty engine and looked down the fabled turf and said: now, that’s more like it. And he ran all over them, under his teenage rider.
As the glittering star that is Douvan, who was supposed to bring the stands to a roar with an exhibition round, got the first two fences wrong and never found his stride, that disappointment left room for the old boy Special Tiara, who has been delighting crowds with his bold, front-running style for the last five years, to pick up the baton and give a surprise win to his brilliant jockey, Noel Fehily. Fehily is a modest man, a lovely horseman and a ravishing judge of a race, who doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. As he went to pick up his trophy, he took his two tiny children with him, and I thought: those little ones will remember that moment for the rest of their lives. That’s a memory nobody can take away. It was a dream for Special Tiara’s trainer too, another fine horseman called Henry De Bromhead, who has had a bit of a torrid time when his biggest owner suddenly moved all his horses away. Owners do this and they have every right; they pay the bills, after all. But it’s always a blow for a yard, and to see Bromhead come back to take one of the championship races felt right and fair.
A bit of fairy tale stardust can scatter even on the big boys, for whom this game is more serious business than the stuff of dreams. Usually at Cheltenham, you can set your watch by the Mullins and Walsh battalions. They park their tanks on the lawn and that’s all she wrote. But this year they had a rotten first couple of days, with hot favourites getting beaten and their great star flickering and fading. Willie Mullins has also lost one of his big owners, when Michael O’Leary took sixty horses away. There was a lot of gossip and speculation, but Mullins stayed elegant and silent on the subject. All the same, it must have hurt when one of those horses, Apple’s Jade, beat Mullins’ two mares for her new yard.
‘That’s racing,’ said Ruby Walsh, with his philosophical hat on, but it seemed strange to see that even these giants are mortal. And then, yesterday, the little firecracker that is Un De Sceaux took the bit by the teeth and decided that enough was enough. Un De Sceaux was always a tearaway, screaming off in front and taking reckless chances with his fences, but he seemed to have settled down a little as he has grown older. He almost appeared a little subdued lately, as if some of that fire had burned low. In the Ryanair, he had a few questions to answer: he was going up in trip and people were not sure if he would stay up the hill, and the ground was drying out when he really likes it soft. He’s quite small and lightly built, and he looked touchingly diminutive in the paddock against the other great, muscled chasers. Racing is a superstitious business and it seemed as if a bit of a hoodoo had fallen on the Mullins camp, even though they had finally got one on the board with Yorkhill.
Un De Sceaux had no questions in his fascinating mind. The fire was back. Ruby tried sensibly to settle him into third, but the horse wasn’t having any of it. He took a unilateral decision and soared off into the lead in a flat gallop. His jockey, seeing there was no point in having an argument, let him roll. Oh, oh, I thought, watching in amazement, if he’s not going to stay, we’ll see that soon enough. ‘Desperate to get a breather into him,’ said the commentator, gasping at the astonishing leaps. Un De Sceaux had no thought for a breather; the further he went the faster he went. He was standing off a mile away and getting as far the other side. Ruby, by this stage, was riding him like he stole him. Any caution was long thrown to the winds. He can’t possibly keep this up, I thought.
He did keep it up. He galloped and jumped, stretched and leapt, and he flew up that long hill as if it was not there. I’m not sure I ever saw a braver performance, from horse or jockey. It did have a fairy tale quality to it, as the polite Willie Mullins smile glimmered and twinkled under his elegant hat, and my racing posse on Twitter made naughty jokes about Michael O’Leary having to present Mullins, the man he deserted, with his own cup. (In the end, he got Mrs O’Leary to do it, and there were some naughty jokes about that, too.)
And then, just to put the stamp on the day, they won the Stayers’ Hurdle and they won the mares’ race with their beautiful Let’s Dance, who lived up to her name, foxtrotting from last to first with a glimmering, gleaming run, shimmying through horses, picking her way from left to right, doing a tango to the line.
Today, they could win the Gold Cup with Djakadam, who has been the bridesmaid twice and might just get the apple blossom and be the bride. But they’ve got to get past Colin Tizzard, who will have been up at dawn to milk his cows. (Actually, I’m not sure whether Colin Tizzard still milks his cows himself, but it’s a picture I like, and I hold it in mind like an amulet. He’s probably the most down to earth man in racing, a true gentleman of the soil, a countryman to his boots, and whenever I see him interviewed I smile with pleasure, as if all is well with the world.) Tizzard has got dear old Cue Card, who has been running brilliant races since he first won the bumper by ten lengths at 40-1. Cue Card is one of those who has been around for ever, and he’s been up and he’s been down, but he always seems to soar back to brilliance just when people have written him off. He is owned by a charming lady called Jean Bishop, who does not have an airline or a hedge fund, is not a plutocrat or a billionaire, but is one of those quiet stalwarts of the jumping game, the kind who keep the sport going. She used to have him with her husband Bob, but Mr Bishop died and now she goes to the races on her own. I find her small, upright figure almost unbearably moving, as she goes to see her brave horse without the husband who loved him so much.
If Cue Card could win at the age of eleven, the roof would come off the stands. He’s a tall, handsome horse, who carries his head high, and the racing public have taken him to their heart. But he’s got to get past the younger legs of his stablemate Native River, who has carried all before him this season. I adore Native River. He’s a sanguine, relaxed sort of horse, and has a sweet way of going, lobbing along as if he does not have a care in the world. When they first had him they did not think they had a Gold Cup horse. He’s a relentless galloper, accelerating away when everything else has cried enough, and some people said he’s just one of those grinders, a dour stayer without the sparkle of brilliance needed for the top level. He’s only seven, but he’s so composed that he seems as if he has an old head on young shoulders, and he’s getting better all the time, and he’s so willing and so genuine and I could see him skipping round those big fences with his ears pricked and defying the doubters who question his class. He’s classy enough for me, with his big white face and his battling heart.
Any of these three would be a story, any of the rest of the field would be a dream; it’s an open race this year and someone will write a tale. As in all the races, I think that even if my favourite or my fancy does not run their race, someone else will be having a moment of sheer delight for which they have worked and worried and planned and hoped.
In the end I think: just come home safe. Not all horses do. It’s the shadow over the sun. No matter how much I tell myself that any horse can go at any time – cast in the box, sudden grass sickness, an unsuspected infection, a wrong step in a slow canter – when I see it on the racecourse it breaks my heart. Nicky Henderson, who was a friend of my father’s and is one of the nicest men in racing, set a festival record this week which may never be matched. Yesterday, caught in the cruel highs and lows of all sport, he lost one of his heart horses, Hadrian’s Approach. ‘He was a lovely person,’ he said, in bottomless regret. Mortality is a fact for all horses: Willie Mullins lost the brilliant and beautiful Vautour in freak field accident at home. Kauto Star came safely through a long and dazzling career and retired to do dressage, which you would have thought was the safest of all disciplines, but he died from another of those pointless, heartbreaking accidents. Every morning when I go down to my mare, I feel a singing relief that she is still there, in one piece, having made it through the night. I think I’ll get her to a glorious old age, but even though she is not running out on the racecourse any more, I can’t take a minute with her for granted. She is vulnerable as all horses are, and I seize every moment I have with her with a passionate gratitude.
So today, as I turn on, wondering which story will be written, which dream will come true, which tale will be told, I hope for all of them to run their race and come home, for all of them to get their happy ending.