If you have been drinking excessively the night before, it requires considerable bravery even to think about getting up the next morning. However, when there is a great race horse to watch, I’m out bed faster than a child at Christmas.
I joined the rest of the devoted horse racing public at Ascot last Saturday. The much-vaunted Sprinter Sacre was back after 386 days sidelined by heart trouble. His return was a testament to the horse and the exquisitely patient training by the ever fabulous N.J.Henderson.
Coincidentally I had just put down a splendid biography of flat legend Henry Cecil and could not help but spot the odd comparisons between the two trainers. Both are raffish charmers with amazing inner steel.
They rely less on fashionable modern scientific approaches, preferring instead to trust their instinctive understanding of how to train their fantastic equine athletes to deliver their best.
And it has certainly worked as both careers are peppered with great horses.
I have had the privilege of being track side for most of his Sprinter Sacre’s great victories – and sadly I was also present when he had a heart murmur and Kempton Park last Christmas. So I needed to be at Ascot to see if the old boy was still at the peak of his powers. Unable to persuade anyone to come with me, I was to travel with just a racing post as company.
Sport, by its very nature, often lends itself to hyperbole. In Britain we often heap praise too easily – raising the benefactor to the summit of ‘great’ after one decent season. And with equal caprice we are all too keen lower the flag towards failure. This horse was rightfully classed as a chasing deity before his lengthy lay off – would he now bask in the champagne of old or soar to further highs.
The weather was delightful, clear skies with cold wind, though the ground ran soft. I think the weather added with Sprinter Sacre’s declaration, definitely boosted the crowd.
I arrived minutes before the first race; I watched in the bar with a few fellow late comers. Racing is a sport where public and professionals mix with understated accessibility – highlighted by the fact the tall and slim chap sitting alone to my left was David Pipe, the highly regarded trainer; whom I really should have had asked for a tip.
When one walks around the beautifully bold and modern interiors of Ascot there are many small exhibits – Frankel’s silks, HRH’s silks, and a statuette of the great Yeats. I believe the bookmakers are giving serious consideration to erecting a bust of me for all the hard work and money I have dedicated to them – never more so than last Saturday!
Though I lost a lot of money, Saturday was a day for the unerring race fan in us – the small boy wanting to see a great horse trained by a great trainer. Only mad horses and Englishmen would spend a Saturday in such a chill. An unexpected quick drink with a wicketkeeper after lunch only fortified my love of the racing. Finally after a few unsuccessful races and with no social obligations, I decided to train my eyes on as much of the Sprinter as it was possible to see in the build up.
Henderson, who appeared to be burdened with stress as he prepared his charge for its long-awaited return, looked nervous but relieved that today was the day. The jockey, the brilliant Barry Geraghty, had a steely look in his face.
The horse, the real star of the show, looked nervous and full of pent up energy. One never likes to anthropomorphise too much – but he looked a bit like he was off to his new school, reluctant but also raring to go. However, I don’t remember producing foam around my mouth as I trotted off to boarding school!!
Binoculars and hip flask at the ready I joined the crowd in expectancy. I was jittery as I had allowed sentiment and whisky to convince me into a rather large bet; betting, as I will always, with one’s heart and memories of great days often ends in disaster.
Like any 2 mile chase, the pace was relentless, causing the jumping to be immaculate. The veteran Somersby was ever keen to test the returning king’s heart. Geraghty was in the perfect position at the final bend, the same point at which the great Frankel gloriously turned on the unbeatable power and pace on the summer flats.
We thought, perhaps we were seeing the greatest comeback since Muhammad Ali – the ears were pricked but so were those of a fitter and seasoned Dodging Bullets and coming over the last the old champs colours were lowered on the run in.
I dashed to the small tunnel that takes the horses to the winner’s enclosure, as fast as my little boots would take me. The horses walking in looked like a post match rugby team, I even thought one was about crack a beer. They all looked resplendent; one often forgets the sheer magnetic size until they are up close. There was a regal silence after all the frenetic action and thunder of hooves.
The punters eyes looked on a relieved and smiling Barry Geraghty’s face which told us that though today was not the day, there was plenty to come from this big black aeroplane at Cheltenham…
The plaudits went to the winner and Henderson beamed in the paddock and welcomed back his happy healthy horse.