All over the country, lovers of racing will be studying the form. They will be looking at stats and speed figures and ratings. They will be considering the ground, the track, the merits of speed and stamina.
This is because two of the titans of the steeplechasing game are coming out today to flex their steely muscles. Not only is it the first time their admirers have seen them since their summer holidays, but they are going head to head in one of the most storied races of the calendar. (It was on this day, seven years ago, that Kauto Star roared back to form to win the Betfair with one of the most dazzling rounds of jumping I’ve ever seen. Many people said he was finished. He had something to say about that and he said it and everyone with a heart cried tears of joy, mostly me.)
Today, Native River and Might Bite, the first and second in last year’s Gold Cup, renew their heroic rivalry.
And as everyone studies the form, I am thinking about the love. Because in races like this, with horses like this, statistics and figures mean nothing to me. It’s all about the love. It’s about admiration, for the talent of these horses, for their honesty, their beauty, their sheer guts. It’s for their authenticity and brilliance. It’s for the fact that they live across the species barrier, on a mysterious plane of their own, where humans can only visit. These thoroughbreds graciously allow us two-leggeds to touch their world, but they still keep many of their secrets. It is perhaps that mystery that makes the relationship so magical.
My love for Native River is very straightforward, because he is a straightforward gentleman. He’s willing and tough and he gallops and jumps, gallops and jumps. If he were a person, he’d be the sort of fellow who you’d ring at midnight when your car had a flat tyre. He’d be there in a flash, with a jack and a spare and a smile.
Might Bite is altogether different gravy. He’s a vast, shining, peacock of a horse, almost too handsome for his own good. When he was younger, he had famous quirks. He used to run across the track in comedy hour tangents, once almost throwing away a race at Cheltenham before he gathered himself and charged to the line. People made jokes about him going to have a quick pint in the Arkle Bar before returning to the winning post.
In some ways, it is this quirkiness, this character, that makes him so lovable. If he did not have his idiosyncrasies, he would almost be too perfect. Now, he’s all grown up and he runs in composed straight lines, but the memories of those early jokes die hard. And it did feel to me as if he was having a little joke, laughing at his own brilliance.
And then there is the third love, which is Thistlecrack. In his hurdling days, Thistlecrack was like a finely tuned machine. He was all arrogant power, beating everything for fun. You could set your watch by him. As he got the hang of chasing, he had his heart-stopping moments, making novicey, too bold leaps, pulling for his head, wanting to go at a hundred miles an hour, but it looked as if he would go on to do to chasers what he did to hurdlers. And then he picked up injuries. They could not get him quite right. The shining star faded. The high hopes had to go back into their dusty cupboard. Today, he comes back, and nobody knows how much of the soaring sparkle remains.
My love for him is the love for absurd talent, for roaring power, for a singular athleticism.
Any of them could win. You could write each of them their own story, and all the stories would make sense. I am not putting money into this mix, because this is not a betting race. It’s a heart race, and I have to work out who is going to carry my heart. It’s an almost impossible conundrum.
In the end, I think the Might Bite love just shades it. There is an otherness about him, some sprinkle of stardust, some whiff of myth. It’s to do with his huge frame, his elegant tallness, his film star handsomeness. He looks out on puny mortals as if he is among them but not of them. He has an effortless way of flying over vast fences as if they were cavalettis. He does not knuckle down as Native River does. He floats, on a cloud of his own. Yet he does have courage, and he can scrap for it if he’s offered a fight. In a way, he is the most mysterious of them all, as if he is has been sent by the racing gods for his brief visit to the realm of the ordinary, like a meteor or a gift or a promise.
I love them all, and I hope they all run their race. But there is a part of me that would love to see Might Bite come to the last on the bridle, flow over it with his trademark dismissiveness, and take flight for home. I think he’s one of the rare ones, and I feel privileged to gaze on his brilliance and beauty.