Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Cheltenham. Gratitude Redux.

At the beginning of 2020, I resolved to write every day about gratitude. I would keep a gratitude journal, counting all my blessings, one by lovely one. It relapsed, as these things often do. But today, as the Cheltenham Festival gets into its great, raking stride, the gratitude is shooting into the stratosphere.

How can I count the ways?

I’m grateful that someone - I should know who, and I think he might have been some kind of reverend gent - looked at the glorious natural bowl that is Prestbury Park and thought, ‘I know. We’ll set the best thoroughbreds in the land running round there.’

I’m grateful that there are brave, tough, humorous, talented men and women who ride those thoroughbreds with skill and grace. 

I’m grateful that there are women and men who train those horses, who are up at dawn and worrying until after midnight about legs and backs, about distances and ground, about minds and hearts. I’m in awe of how they take victory with humility and defeat with stoicism. They live with hope and disappointment, and most of them treat those two imposters the same. 

I’m grateful that there are hundreds of thousands of people who will go to the races and shout their equine heroes and heroines home. I love the Cheltenham crowd, because they know what they are about. They aren’t just there for the beer. They’ll often give a horse who finishes second or third the most rousing reception of the day, because they recognise courage and they love a trier. They adore plucky underdogs and they know what it takes to get up that hill. 

I’m grateful for Twitter on days like this. I can’t make the five hundred mile journey south, so I sit in my room in Scotland, watching on the box. But I’m not alone. I’ve got my online racing crew, and we make bad jokes and compare hats and soothe each others nerves and share the love. 

I’m grateful for the extraordinary Cheltenham ground crew, who have spent the last few months fretting over every blade of grass, every birch twig, every drop of rain that falls. When I switch on and see that magical sward of emerald turf, I know who I have to thank.

I’m grateful for the women and men behind the scenes, the ones who look after these grand horses every day of their lives. I know their life; I grew up with it. I know the dedication, the adoration, the sheer, relentless work. I know the long hours and the impossible dreams and the lack of sleep. When you see them out on the course, screaming and hollering and jumping up and down, they are not doing it for money or fame. It’s because those are their friends out their, their boon companions, their beloved compadres. 

And most of all, I am absurdly grateful that the thoroughbred exists in the world. It was invented out of whole cloth, from the Arabs and Barbs and Turks, whose speed and majesty and power was crossed, over three hundred years ago, with the strength and kindness and sturdiness of native Irish and English mares. Whoever came up with that idea was a genius. The stories are legion, and often improbable. The Byerley Turk, the big Daddy of them all, fought in the Battle of the Boyne. The Battle of the Boyne! (He shows up in the pedigrees of both my mares, and every time I see his name, I get a little thrill.)

The horses you will see out there this week are not just athletic machines, dourly programmed to win. They have their quirks and idiosyncrasies. They are packed with character and charm. I swear that some of them even have a sense of humour. They have many of the virtues you would look for in a human: they are gutsy and genuine, honest and strong, authentic and kind. They are also crazy beautiful, so that this festival is an aesthetic feast, on top of everything else. 

As I rode back from the shop on my red mare, where we had been to collect my Racing Post, I thought that today might be a day for the girls. Few things in life make my heart dance like a really brilliant, tough mare, and there are a some of those running today. I’m hoping that the dazzling, elegant Epatante and the powerful, absurdly talented Benie Des Dieux might make it a Ladies’ Day to remember.

And now, we are off.


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