The great Oliver Reed once proclaimed that he drank stupendous amounts in pubs because “the finest people that I have ever met have been” there. Though I endorse the garrulous thespian’s sentiment, I believe that the very best people are to be found on the racecourse.
I have of course tested this theory in the last fortnight and sadly discovered that – in London at least – Reed’s pub arcadia no longer exists.
What a contrast to those I have met at race meetings in the last few days. My trusty trilby and I have watched truly wonderful British racing; the final day of the jumps season at Sandown was followed a week later by the first classic of the flat season, the 2,000 Guineas, at Newmarket.
Jump racing – a sport that lends itself to bellicose metaphor – is rather like reading Homer’s Illyad. Horse’s careers often last a decade, filled with extreme highs and woe betide the lows, and one season is usually jam-packed with all manner of emotive narratives.
Sandown was no exception.
The first sentimental story was that the Bridesmaid, Richard “Dickie” Johnson, got his day in the sun at long last – after spending 16 years congratulating the imperious AP McCoy, Johnson won his first Champion Jockey’s title. Johnson also got a winner, on the marvellous evergreen Menorah, which this old punter enjoyed at 6-1!
The second tale was the battle for the trainer’s title between the pugnacious nine-time champion Paul Nicholls and the Ireland’s top trainer Willie Mullins – a chap so prolific on both sides of the Irish Sea that he was bidding to win his first British championship, along with the sewn-up Irish.
Mullins conceded the Championship after a few too many placed horses for Nicholls made the title mathematically impossible; and a bullish Nicholls announced to all that his tenth trainer’s championship was the “sweetest of them all”.
Mullins, who had played the role of rival sportingly, did blot his copy book with the late withdrawal of Vroum Vroum Mag – ten minutes before post and much to the chagrin of the punters after the loss of the title.
The highlight of the day came in the perfect bay form of my favourite horse in training, Sprinter Sacre. This rippling beast’s joyous return to full health and grade one race wins is perhaps the greatest comeback story in racing – however, the win at Sandown was less to do with the old boy’s return than it was a statement of dominance.
Many observers regarded Sprinter’s running in the Celebration Chase as potentially a race too far for a horse that was in an equine hospital only 18 months ago. His trainer, the splendid Nicky Henderson, knows the horse better than anyone and he felt he could go to the well once again – in fact he didn’t just go to the well again, he drank it all up like a greedy colt and left nothing for his mortal rivals.
Sprinter has an arrogance when he strides around the paddock like a prized-fighter on fight night – I should imagine that the other horses were quivering underneath their saddles at the sight of his large shoulders and cold eyes. The race was contested by the young pretender, Un de Sceaux, and many erstwhile two mile grade one winners on ground that, unfortunately for them, suited Sprinter.
He stalked the leaders like a languid lion in the Serengeti, allowing them to make the running, and then three from home he put in a leap that personified his immense power and athletic grace.
He nosed in front of Un de Sceaux and Sire de Grugy and, with a thrust of pace that reminded one of a DRS boost in a formula one car, he cruised into the home straight. He glided over the final two fences to win with 15 lengths in hand and the adoration of the crowd in tow.
The rest of the racing was hard and fast but nothing left such an indelible mark on the memory as that beautiful horse, restored to manner he was born to rule, and making decent horses look like they should be running midweek at Plumpton not a prime race on Saturday.
Welcome back old bean.
A week later it was again off to the races – a quick change of clothes from my Barbour and tweeds to a suit and hat – and the fabulous flats were here. I am a jumps man at heart but I do love watching thoroughbred horses, with the sun beating down on me, and a glass of champers in my hand.
Newmarket is known as HQ by the flat racing fraternity; it is a place steeped in horseracing history and, in fact, the town would be redundant without the industry.
The career of a flat race star all too rarely extends beyond two or at best three years but the narrative is to replicate the horses of yore – their sires and dams lead to a feast of anecdotes that bring in the Classics, Royal Ascot, and Glorious Goodwood. Is there any better reminder of all the best that an English Summer has to offer?
Newmarket really is a sumptuous course that is dripping in flat grassy vistas and full of racing royalty – thankfully not actual royalty.
We were lucky enough to be in the Jockey Club’s Eclipse Pavilion and aside from the convivial company, buckets of champers, and excellent seafood bar, it allows one a great view of the horses going to and from the track.
There was an interesting frisson of nerves because this was the first classic to offer us any answers to the season ahead. My Mother knows the right people, so I was lucky enough to find myself at the centre of the Paddock and get up close and personal with some of the gorgeous hoses. The skill of the tiny jockey’s to assert their will on those brooding colts and stallions still astounds me.
Absorbing the wisdom of the Pavilion, I sipped knowledgably on my drink, I decided that the Frankie Dettorri ridden Galileo Gold – at a nice 14-1 – looked most settled and primed for victory in the 2,000 Guineas. I was of course correct, the Italian marvel gave Hugo Palmer’s colt an experienced and intelligent ride; he switched the badly drawn horse to the quicker stand-side and roared to the front and Dettori, ever the consummate showman, raised his finger in victory a quarter of a furlong from the post.
Despite the strong wind from the Steppes the sun was flirting with idea of announcing summer. However the racing calendar has already done that – flat racing is summer for most and the Guineas meet certainly signals its beginning for me.