Sunday, 9 April 2017

One For Arthur.

Yesterday, a rather curious thing happened. The horse who won the Grand National was not even mentioned in running until just before the second last.
I had backed the horse who won the Grand National, but because I could not see him and nobody mentioned him, I spent most of the race thinking my money was down the drain. About half way through I spotted a loose horse with a white face a bit like his and thought, oh, he’s fallen and nobody saw it. Hold on a second, I thought, One For Arthur doesn’t fall. In his entire racing career, he’s never had a single fall. I thought: what on earth is going on?
I madly squinted at the screen, but I could not see him. It was all happening too fast. I kept looking for his white cap but I could only see the pale blob of the McManus colours.
Afterwards, as I watched the race back, I realised that if I had been watching Racing UK instead of ITV, I would have been more reassured. Their commentator mentioned One for Arthur at the thirteenth fence. But even there, I would have had trouble. It wasn’t the commentators’ fault. Arthur was so far back in the field that he often dropped off the television picture altogether.
I had put my money on One For Arthur because I loved him, because he’s one of the most honest horses I’ve ever seen, because despite being a gentle stable favourite he’s tough as old boots, because he won brilliantly at Warwick last time out over a marathon trip, and because he is Scottish. One for Scotland, I kept saying.
Of course Arthur isn’t really Scottish at all. He’s an international man of mystery. He was bred in Ireland and both his grand-sires were American. His great-grandsire, Northern Dancer, was Canadian. He is, like many thoroughbreds, a citizen of the world. Despite his kind, honest face, his journeyman racing style, and his absolutely enormous loppy ears, he turns out to be unbelievably posh. He’s got aristocrats of the flat all over his pedigree – champion milers and Derby winners and conquerors of the Breeders’ Cup turf. I know absolutely sod all about breeding, it’s such a recondite art and science, but that seems to me an astonishing heritage for a horse who has just won a race over four and a quarter miles. (If the brilliant Jim McGrath were here, he would no doubt shake his sage head and smile his twinkly smile and show me the bags of stamina that exist on the bottom line.)
But Arthur is trained in Scotland, in the green fields of Kinross, by the admirable Lucinda Russell and her assistant, Peter Scudamore. So he counts as Scottish, for his friends in the north. One For Arthur is one for Scotland, the first National winner trained north of the border since Rubstic, almost forty years ago.
It was the Scottishness that excited me as I gazed out over my own Scottish hills and woods and valleys, but it was that victory at Warwick which really gave me hope. As the race grew closer and I went through the form over and over again, I felt sure that Scottish flags would be flying. Almost every horse had a question mark, as they so often do in this race. The ones who had been here before, like Saint Are, were getting a bit long in the tooth, or were, like The Last Samuri, heavily weighted. There were some who had questions over their stamina and some who did not much like big fields (some horses get very claustrophobic and hate to be crowded) and some who were not the most reliable jumpers.
One For Arthur didn’t seem to have that many questions. He’d been over these fences before, and closed like a train in the Becher Chase, and although he’d never run over this far before, he had finished over a long distance in his last race ‘like a fresh horse’ as the commentator said that day.
The only thing that started to worry me, as the sun shone and shone and shone on the antic Aintree crowds, was that the ground was drying up. Arthur had form on good ground, but the consensus seemed to be that he liked it soft. Peter Scudamore admitted that as the ground grew firmer in the sunshine he wouldn’t have minded putting Arthur in the lorry and driving him straight back to Scotland. It wasn’t just the rattling hooves that made me fretful. I knew that the drying ground meant the field would go off at a hundred miles an hour. One For Arthur is not a flashy front-runner. He tends to mosey round at the back and make his move late. I was fearful that he would not keep up with the frantic early pace and get too far out of his ground and then it would be too late, and all his honesty and all his heart would be in vain.
In the old days, National heroes often used to hunt round at the back for the first circuit, getting into a nice rhythm, keeping out of trouble, waiting for the field to thin out, and then pick up the tired horses towards the end. The received wisdom is that, as the race has changed over the years, a jockey can’t do that any more. The rather wonderful thing is that Derek Fox, only twenty-four and having his first ride in the race, rolled back the years and did absolutely precisely that. He might have been John Oaksey or Michael Scudamore or Bob Champion. For all his youth, he did it the old-fashioned way.
So there I was, trembling hands clutching my pint of Guinness, staring and squinting at the television screen, unable to see my brave boy, convinced he had been lost in the melée. Blaklion, one of the favourites for the race, was blazing off in front, jumping for fun, and seemingly full of running. And then, suddenly, there was Arthur. He seemed to appear out of the pack like magic. Two fences to go, and the commentator spotted him for the very first time. ‘One For Arthur is making significant progress,’ he said, a faint note of surprise in his voice.
Significant progress was right. The bonny fella was swinging along, and, in a gloriously bold manoeuvre, he rolled past six, seven, eight, nine horses as if they were standing still. Derek Fox didn’t even have to ask him a question, he simply pointed him in the right direction and Arthur said: yes, yes, let’s go.
And then, just as he was finally getting into contention after that long, long hunt at the back, as my heart was beating and my hopes were rising, he jumped the second last and went smack into Blaklion, who was slowing down. This would be enough to bring lesser horses to their knees. Even if they could stand up after a thirty-mile-an hour collision, many of them would have entirely lost their stride and their rhythm and their momentum. Some of them would find their confidence faltering and would need to be nursed back into the race. Arthur did not even blink. He did not deviate. He simply kept on galloping as if Blaklion were not there.
I remembered vaguely having seen him get hampered and pick himself up in exactly the same way somewhere before. He’s not a great big slab of muscle who looks built to shoulder aside other runners, but he is fiercely tough. He seems, if it is not too fanciful a thing to say, to have a rather sunny view of the world. He can have an early race stumble or a coming together and he doesn’t let it fret him. If he were a human, he would be an optimist. Yes, he seems to say, life happens, but I’m still going to run at it at full tilt. Many great horses have a mental resilience as much as a physical strength, and good Arthur, for all his reputed sweetness (‘a real gentleman, a massive softie,' they say of him at home), seems to have that streak of mental steeliness in spades.

Coming to the last, he forged into the lead, almost hurdled the final fence, roared round the murderous Elbow where so many horses hit the wall, found the rail, stuck his neck out, pricked his ears, and ran straight to the line, leaving the field streaming behind him like fluttering banners in a light wind. His only conceivable danger was the gallant Cause of Causes, rallying in second, but Arthur was not for catching. He won by four lengths and you felt he could have made that six or seven if he’d wanted to. He’s not a swaggery horse. He didn’t need to prove his point. He’d done exactly what he needed to do and that was enough.
After the post, he came back to a nice trot, tilted his head politely at the people who came rushing up to put water on him on this hot day, gave a little look at their buckets and sponges as if to say: don’t mind me, you go ahead and do what you have to do.
I had been shouting ‘GO ON ARTHUR’ at the top of my voice. Now I shouted: ‘I DON’T BELIEVE IT.’ And: ‘Arthur did it.’ And: ‘Oh, oh, oh, you beautiful boy.’ And then I burst into tears, because brave horses like that always make me cry and I had thought all was lost and the dream was over, and then that dream came to shining, shattering life at the very end.
One For Arthur was not really an underdog, when you looked at what he had done. He ticked, as they say, an awful lot of boxes. But somehow he felt a bit like an underdog. He was trained in one of the smaller National Hunt yards, north of the border, not one of the huge operations in Lambourn or Ireland. His trainer had spent the night before the race not in a swanky hotel, but in her camper van in the car park. He was not ridden by a household name, one of the giants of the weighing room, but by a young man who had broken his wrist only a month before and had barely passed the doctor. He was owned not by a plutocrat or a multi-millionaire, but by two very jolly women who had known each other from childhood and who, by their own account, decided to buy a horse together after having a few gins. Ed Chamberlin of ITV Racing had got very excited about The Golf Widows, as they call themselves, after their victory at Warwick, liking the fact that you don’t have to be a super-rich owner with a string of stars to win some really nice races, and there had been a bit of publicity about them and their good horse in the weeks before the race, but, for all that, Arthur was hardly mentioned in the preliminaries.
The talking horses were Blaklion, Vieux Lion Rouge, and Definitly Red. (The story went round that Definitly Red was spelt like that because the man who registered his name filled in the form after having a few drinks in the pub. I’m sure that’s not true, but I’d rather love it to be true.) There was a bit of chat about the mighty Mullins/Walsh combination and the Gigginstown posse. In the Racing post, of the six top tipsters only one chose One For Arthur. There was someone on Twitter who loved Arthur so much they had taken the Twitter name One For Arthur and backed him off the boards for weeks. And at fourteen to one, he was high enough in the market, not a forlorn hope at 50-1. (There was some suspicion that it was patriotic Scottish money and people who were called Arthur or knew someone called Arthur. A lot of Grand National betting comes down to the name, as the once-a-year punters pick their fancies not on form but on superstition and whim and sheer what the hell.)
So staunch, stalwart Arthur had rather slipped off the radar, and as he gently hunted round at the back nobody had thought to look for him. As he came from the clouds, from that impossible position, having made no fuss, getting on with the job in his reliable, likeable fashion, it seemed as if the forgotten horse was suddenly being recollected. Here I am, he said, still going. Remember me?
Oh, yes, I said. I remember you, you absolutely brilliant boy.
As the dust settled and my mind cleared and my heartbeat returned to a vaguely normal rhythm, I went back over the replays, trying to see how it had been done. He had the jumping, that was for sure. I don’t think he touched a twig. He had the toughness, as he forged on after that incident at the second last. He had the stamina and the fitness and the enthusiasm. He had a great partnership with his jockey, was given a lovely, sympathetic, patient ride. Fox did not panic, did not hassle his fella, but let him find his rhythm (rhythm wins races, the sages always say) and gave him all the time in the world. Those two knew each well and had faith in each other, and that counts for an awful lot.
In the end, I think that a lot of that great victory was a victory of character. If horses are understood and handled well, they grow easy in their skin and at home in the world. They reflect what their humans put into them. The team at Lucinda Russell’s yard have made Arthur what he is. I think he is a naturally honest, open, confident horse whose innate character has been allowed to shine because of the way he’s been treated.
I thought of this because of what happened just before the race. As the build-up grew, some horses and jockeys got excited and charged the tape and the starter had to call them back. In the front line, there was One For Arthur, who moved immediately into a willing canter, thinking it was time to go. As the false start was called, his jockey circled him back around. A lot of horses at this stage, hopped up on adrenaline, throw their heads in the air, resisting the instruction from the saddle. They are the products of three hundred years of breeding, for speed and strength. They are flight animals, and their ancestral voices are calling to them.
Sweet Arthur, as courteous as a courtier, bowed his head and turned gently around, as if he was saying: fine, Derek, whatever you say. No rush, he seemed to be saying.
Looking back, I almost think the race was won there. That horse was so cool, so poised, so polite, so responsive that he wasted no energy: not in the paddock, not in the parade, not on his way down, not at the boiling cauldron that is the start. Any racecourse is ludicrously designed to make a horse wig out. Horses are biologically programmed to be suspicious of sudden movement, of unknown environments, of shadows (they have poor depth perception and can see shadows as canyons), of random noise. That is what kept the species alive over thousands of years. On a big day, such as the Grand National, all this hullabaloo is ratcheted up to a Spinal Tap eleven and some of the more sensitive types can go over the top and lose their race before it even starts.
Some horses have more sanguine temperaments than others. They are individuals, just like humans, and, just like humans, there are some who can barrel their way through life, blithe and bonny. Some are naturally more wary, more prone to lose their confidence, more likely to become unsettled. If those horses have good humans around them, who understand them and listen to them, they learn to build confidence and have trust.
I think One For Arthur is a genuinely nice horse, but he also has a team around him who are horsewomen and men to their bones. So he can go into the crazy atmosphere of the big day, with the tannoys and trumpets and teaming crowds and still say: yes, Derek, whatever you want. He has read his Kipling. He knows how to keep his head while others are losing theirs.
Brilliance in horses is a mysterious thing. It’s hard to say that One For Arthur is not a creature of joyful natural talent, after what he did yesterday. But on paper, he was not the classiest horse in the race. He may, however, have been the most straightforward. He stayed entirely unruffled, sweetly willing, gloriously genuine, answering every question with a mannerly yes. A picture was posted later that night of him back at home in his box, looking as composed and relaxed as if he’d just come back from doing a quiet bit of work on the gallops. It sounds too bonkers to say that Arthur won the most famous race in the calendar because he’s a really nice person, but I have an irresistible suspicion that his niceness and his goodness and his willingness all helped give him wings.

After all the jubilee and turmoil and wild celebrations were long over, I went down to the silent field where my own thoroughbreds were dozing, waiting for their tea. I smiled at my sleepy red mare. ‘Arthur did it for Scotland,’ I said. She gave me a look. She blinked, entirely unimpressed, because she does not speak English and she does not know what the Grand National is. I laughed, and put down her bucket of feed. She whickered happily. The rattle of that bucket is a language she does understand. She never saw the point of racing, but she sees the point of a damn good bit of food. I felt reality return. I get tremendously carried away by the big days. One For Arthur is a great athlete who went out and did his magnificent job, but he, just like my slow red mare, will care not for the glory or the silver trophies or the heaps of newsprint that will be written about him in the wake of his flying victory, but that his reliable human will be pitching up with his own bucket. I suspect it might have an extra carrot or two in it today. 

5 comments:

  1. As I think I've mentioned before, I never had the slightest interest in racing but your writing is such that I read every word with pleasure. And there is usually a nugget or more of wisdom in there to find as well. This time it was that sweetness and resilience can and do co-exist in a soul. And that reminded me of my father, who had both. He lost the use of one side of his body after a severe stroke, and lived eight years more in a wheelchair, sweet and resilient.

    I'm glad your pick won and hope you put enough on him to make the victory even sweeter.

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  2. I immediately thought of you when I saw that a horse trained in Scotland had won. I said to myself, "Tania will be pleased", and so it seems you were - not to mention a little richer.
    Nice to see also that a rider from Sligo won. WB and Jack will be looking down with a grin and a Guinness perhaps. Not sure if they enjoyed a pint though - I'll have to look into that.
    I'll try to remember that it's not how you start that matters so much.
    Stephen M.

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  3. Been catching up on your posts and words and as always, leave feeling better. I am sorry for the response you had to a certain section of your book. And so grateful you still share your blog with us. Much love xx

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  4. That was such a pleasure to read, thank you Tania! Now I shall read a chapter or two of Seventy Seven Ways before sleep...

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