Splendid times with Eugene Onegin and the Sprintre

Christmas time used to be five day period of eating drinking, with a smattering of family thrown in. Our faces get paler, trousers tighten, and drinking becomes borderline.

Now though, like our festive waistline, the celebrations have expanded to a unwholesome three weeks of debauchery. 

City streets are strewn with bizarrely dressed and barely coherent, usually upstanding, members of society. It is a Christmas miracle that that any of this rumbustious lot makes it to work the next day, let alone output anything productive.

I, on the other hand, drink more ale and spend a great deal of time in lovely old boozers – a particular favourite this winter has been The Hand and Shears, in Smithfield, with its glorious traditional decor and splendidly camp landlord. 

This is a much finer way to bloat one’s liver and dull the senses than firing sugary shots and cheap lager with screaming banshees.

Apart from downing pots of ale at an unspoilt nineteenth century pub I have enjoyed a season of the highest order – oysters and turkey on the 25th was bookended by little trips that both left me exclaiming “Cripes – I have forgotten my binoculars!”

Indeed I was so woolly headed to forget the binos for the wonderful offering of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House. How remiss to have forgotten one’s opera binoculars – thankfully my seats were close enough to the stage to smell the actors’ cologne. 
I am becoming somewhat of a ‘Tchai head’, having seen a wonderful symphony earlier in the year. The Opera is an inspiring and beautiful place to spend the evening, especially when one walks in from the festive and glittering Covent Garden.

Eugene Onegin is a well-known example of a lyric opera; based on Pushkin’s novel to which Tchaikovsky has added the marvelously dramatic music. The story is about a selfish hero who lives to regret his blasé rejection of a young woman’s love and his careless incitement of a fatal duel with his best friend.

There is a superb passage of ballet dancing when the contrite Onegin reflects on the folly of his youth. These ethereal scenes were excellently done and combined superbly with the pathos riddled Onegin’s warbling.

It is a rare treat to see a baritone lead the opera. The easy laconic tone is as smooth as milk and honey and, especially in Russian, is a delightful change to the passion and campness of the more ubiquitous Italian lyrics.

After a staunch week of dog walking and general intemperance, it was time to take a trip out my favourite comely concrete jungle. 

As ever in life I found a race meeting to patronise. 

For as many Christmases as I can remember I have frequented Kempton Park’s fabulous two day festival. The excellent King George day was a family staple when I was a young boy but in recent years gone by I have frequented the second, slightly less-vaunted day.

The Jockey Club has popped in an excellent Class 1 race named after the bounding grey legend Desert Orchid, encouraging the family to choose this day for the last nine years. This year’s renewal was swelling and had a splendidly bubbly atmosphere – it is a joy to see this less vaunted day become busier and feel less like an afterthought each year. 

Kempton Park is a very friendly and relaxed racecourse. I wouldn’t usually recommend a racecourse for children, though it did me good; however Kempton at Christmas time just feels right. The spanning of ages is a joy; a wizened grandfather passing on his knowledge to a wide eyed and baffled grandson is a like a horse racing Werther’s Original. Beautiful. 

Aside from the blustery weather and general pottering at the course, it was the magnificent horses we were there to feast our eyes on. In the seven races, five were in the balance with yards to go – this infamously bad tipster swagging three wins. Returning with a heavy profit for the first time in years!

My gambling purple patch was put in the shade by my favourite horse in training Sprintre Sacre’s Indian Summer. Two years ago I was at Kempton when the great horse had a heart murmur and was consigned to the scrap heap by many wise eyes. 

Any concern at seeing him at the scene of his lowest day was washed away by his performance and completely consigned to the history books by his soaring jump at the last, when still a little behind the great champ Sire de Grugy. His leap to settle the race and once again the crowd could meant we could all bow to the ‘big black aeroplane.’ How appropriate that the horse could show such great heart to get up under a silken ride from Nico de Boinville.  

Delight and pride, with a smattering of relief were etched over trainer Nicky Henderson’s face – the public shared these feeling with him and more importantly the horse. Henderson has often stated that Sprintre is a grand show off; and that was clear for all to see when he paraded in the winner’s enclosure. His ripping black coat pulled over grand bulging muscles; a smile on his face and the cool eyes of a killer.

A fitting climax to a great sporting great.


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