Monday, 30 March 2015

Jumping for joy. And why it matters.

It was a funny day. The sun shone, but the bitter winds, howling in the from east, kept Scotland in winter submission.

The agent rang to say we are not quite there yet. I was brave and cheerful about it. ‘I am a professional,’ I said. ‘This is part of the job.’ Not quite there yet haunts me, and I must be very, very flinty and practical and sensible and stare it in the whites of its eyes and not let it make me sad. It’s just a bit more time and a bit more work and there really are worse things happening at sea.

I did something catastrophically stupid which has led to practical and logistical problems and I had to walk the fine line of rightly scolding myself and not falling into a brown study. I needed to get my categories in a row. I had to face the stupid thing, understand it did not make me an entirely worthless person, prevent myself from falling into a frenzy of lashing and regret, and take stern steps to put the stupid thing right. I had to resist a sudden urge to fling myself into a defensive crouch. I breathed. I reminded myself that nobody had died. I remembered that imperfection is what makes a human lovable. (I really, really hope this is true.) I fixed up the stupid thing and tried not to let the stupidity haunt me.

Although I had caught up on sleep, I still felt a bit tired and out of sorts. Even though I did not have a deadline to meet, I still forgot to make lunch. (Going to do it now.)

It was a mmm, blah, scratchy, scritchy, uncomfortable sort of a day. It was not a show tunes kind of a day. It was the sort of day when I say, with my fatalistic, philosophical hat on: EVERY DAY CAN’T BE DORIS DAY.

Ah, well, I thought. Not the end of the world. Everyone goes through this, one way and another. Better tomorrow.

Then, as I went down to the field to give the duchess her tea, this happened:

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Evverything was better. It damn well was Doris Day, after all.

It was not just that I had the good fortune to bump into The World Traveller and the two great-nieces, the very sight of whom never fails to lift my spirits. It was not just that all one of the little girls wanted to do was sit on the red mare, and that I could confidently say yes, because the dear old duchess is now so soft and relaxed that I can trust her with my best beloveds. It was not just that the mare was so enchanted by the small people that she blinked her eyes at them and wuffled through her nose, so that the smallest small shrieked with delight, making a noise so high that virtually only bats could hear her. It was not just that The World Traveller allowed me to vent all my worries and woes without seeming to mind that I forgot to ask her a single thing about herself, opening up her generous heart and spreading empathy like balm on my wounds. It was not just that they are ridiculously pleased to see me, and love me whether I have sold a book or not.

It is that they are so completely themselves, so happy, so bright and bonny and blithe that they literally jump for joy. You can’t be gloomy and scratchy when there are people jumping for joy in front of your very eyes.

In reality, the universe is a vast uncaring thing, full of dark matter and black holes. Almost every element of it would kill a human stone dead, from solar winds to cosmic radiation to primordial gas. It does not send portents, or care about puny humanity, or do anything but exist. But sometimes I do think of it in a metaphorical, magical sense. Sometimes I think the universe sends me what I need at the exact moment I need it. This is not literally true, and is very, very bad science. It is a metaphor, not a literal fact. But it is one of those things that can feel true.

Today, the universe sent me kind true hearts, and people who jump for joy.

And, of course, a very, very happy horse. If she had her way, they would come and set up camp in the field and live next to her in tents, so she could gaze at them in joy.

Stanley the Dog loves them too. ‘STANLEY, STANLEY, STANLEY,’ they cry, in chanting unison, as he demonstrates his skills with a stick.

Who could fail to love such loveliness?

I did not have to wait for it to be better tomorrow. It was better now.

 

PS. The thing that makes me laugh is that these pictures really are not the best I’ve ever taken. I was laughing so much and so eager to capture every moment that I merely pointed and snapped. They are technically deficient, but they are filled with sweetness, and the happiness of that half hour pours out like starlight. They are a potent reminder that things do not need to be perfect, or even very good, in order to shimmer with loveliness.

Monday, 23 March 2015

A short break.

I’m going off the blog for a few days whilst I hit my deadline and finish this particular draft. This is the one that will go to the publishers to see if one of them would like to buy it. Not much riding on the thing, only the rest of my career.

As a result, I am going to abandon you, ruthlessly. It’s not the time so much, it’s the mental space. I don’t know who started the evil rumour about females being perfectly wonderful at multi-tasking, but they were guilty of a canard. I can only hold about two things in my puny brain, so something has to give, and I’m afraid it is this.

I always laugh when I say not going to blog for a while. I feel slightly guilty, as if I am letting the Dear Readers down. In fact, you are more likely to be sighing gusty sighs of relief, because you can have a nice rest from the relentless gales of Red Mare adoration and the ridiculous obsessions about the 3.30 at Huntingdon. That is where the laughter comes from.

I’m very manic, and I am constantly drinking too much coffee and forgetting to eat lunch. How can I take time for food when so much is at stake? The idiotish thing is that I am doing all this despite the fact that, as I have got older, I have become quite good at asking myself the question What is the Worst Thing That Can Happen? And quite good at facing the answer with some stoicism and not too much drama. (I learnt this from the Beloved Cousin, who is very wise.) The worst thing did happen with the last book, and it did not kill me. I’ve also grown fairly sensible about understanding how fleeting the glittering prizes are. I know that the happiness of my mare and the joy Stanley the Manly feels when he finds a really big stick and the hills and the lichen and the trees and cooking breakfast every day for my old mum are much, much more important than worldly success. The good life lies in the small things, I am persuaded of that.

But, dammit, I would like to be published again. And so: the coffee and the no lunch and the shoulders around the ears. My better angels are trying to sing their song, but they are being drowned out by a less heavenly choir.

I don’t think ambition is bad. I like ambition. I like trying. I believe in striving. But you’ve got to work out where the important things are, and get them in order. I’ll have talked myself down off the ceiling by the end of the week, but just now, I am flown up into the boughs.

Thank you for bearing with me. You are all so good and kind.

Some of the Dear Readers have asked, but I’m not going to say what the books are exactly, just yet. It’s magical thinking, I’m afraid, something I usually try to avoid. If I tell you, it might put a hex on the thing. One is fiction, one is non-fiction. I love them both and I have no idea if a serious grown-up in a serious office with a serious business to think of will love them too. I can only hope.

Luckily, down in a quiet Scottish field, I have a daily dose of sanity:

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They really don’t care. They won’t judge me if I fail. The only reason the red mare would like the manuscript to be accepted is so that I can keep her in Thunderbrook’s. If the worst comes to the worst, I can be like Mrs Worthington, and put her on the stage.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Happiness.

6.02pm on a Friday and I’m still working. I have another hard deadline, and it’s full speed to the finishing line. Although sometimes I think I shall never be finished. There is always another draft.

I had no interest in the eclipse, but I ran into a gentleman with some welders’ glass and looked at it through that and at once was enchanted. A shadow fell over the world and I could see why the ancients thought eclipses a portent of dark doings. It was oddly moving and dramatic.

Rode the mare, fed the mare, adored the mare. Walked the dog, raced up to HorseBack, cantered about with my camera, shouted with excitement at all the good work, had much happy conversation. Went home and did the HorseBack Facebook page which took ages, because there were so many pictures to choose from and so much to say.

Edited, edited, edited. Then, in a spurt of bonkersness, wrote almost 3,000 new words. The emphasis has shifted slightly, and more needs to be said than I thought. Had a moment of slight panic. Ate some cheese. Watched a delightful Hunter Chase, almost my favourite kind of race in the world. Did some more editing. Ruefully regarded my muddly office and decided it would have to wait for another day. All that is important now is getting this damn draft right.

Somewhere, vaguely, on the internet, I saw that it was the International Day of Happiness. Or some such thing. Decided I had to write you a long, long list of happy things.

Obviously it would start with THE RED MARE.

Find something you love and do it well; don’t compare yourself; look at moss; surround yourself with people who make you laugh; read a book; if at all possible, live in the Scottish countryside. Then my brain started fizzling as if the wiring had gone faulty, which is what happens at the end of such a day, and I thought: bugger it, you know what makes you happy. I don’t need to tell you. My own list is endless, and I do not have time to type it, or strength left in my fingers. Perhaps, if I had to boil it down, it would be something like – Be yourself, find your one true thing, follow your own goofy star, and don’t care what anyone else thinks about it.

If I have learned one thing in my life it is that you can never make people think what you would like them to think, and that even if you are a silver-tongued devil, you can rarely change their minds. So you might as well just keep buggering on and not fret about the opinions of others. Do your best, keep trying, accept that sometimes things will go catastrophically wrong. When they do, laugh like a drain, pick yourself, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

I talk a lot about kindness. It is up there with my most favourite virtues, although it does not get much press. Being kind to others is vital, but I also think one should be kind to oneself.

Someone said to me this week that when I bought an ex-racing thoroughbred mare, ‘we all thought you were mad’. I did not know this. I laughed and laughed. Perhaps it was not the most sensible thing for a woman of a certain age to do, especially one disastrously unfit and out of practice and ring rusty. Yet, on this happiness day, I think: that horse brings me more sustained joy than anything else I have ever known.

Every time I am with her, I hear the flapping wings of my better angels. I did not know she would make me a better human, but she did. When I am with her, all the dark things in the world fly away, and I am in the light.

 

Today’s pictures:

Really at the end of my tether now, so just time for two quick snaps. No prizes for guessing what they will be of.

After the eclipse, before the ride:

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After the ride:

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I know this blog is very stuttery, which annoys me since I pride myself on my rhythm. Everyone has a secret pride and that is mine. But I have no time left to edit it, and so I send it out in all its imperfections, because learning to accept imperfection is a secret of happiness too, and it feels appropriate.

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Into the woods. Or: be brave.

There is a moment in a book when I think I am editing and slashing and cutting, killing darlings with a ruthless hand, slaying those irrelevant, indulgent, extraneous paragraphs like Attila the Hun on a wild Saturday night.

In fact, I am fooling myself. I am living in a state of tense fear. I have written all these damn words, and thought all these damn thoughts, and I am holding onto them for grim death. I trim a passage here, and chop a conclusion there, but I am tinkering round the edges. I find that my perspective goes, and I can’t liberate myself. I’m so terrified of losing the good stuff that I dare not murder the bad stuff.

This morning, in the field with the red mare quietly grazing by my side, I shouted into my mobile telephone to my agent. We had one of those revelatory, galvanising conversations which change everything.

‘I AM GALVANISED,’ I hollered, into the light Scottish air. The mare took not the blindest bit of notice.

I did not go to HorseBack, but ran straight to my desk. I merrily threw out 1700 words, and wrote 2339 new ones to go in their place. I was no longer frightened. It had taken me nine months of trying to work out what this book was really about, and, finally, it was the objective eye of the clever agent that cut through the thickets and saw the light.

The thing that is making me laugh is that the heart of the book turns out to be the part about which I harboured profound doubts. It was a piece of folly and self-indulgence, I thought, too much even for me. I could not resist it, but I corralled it into little separate sections in each chapter, so that when the agent shrieked with derisive laughter, as she surely would, I could quietly remove those nutty bits and sit up straight and be a grown up.

Those parts may now be released from their box. It is the happiest irony that they are the glorious, chugging engine of the whole book.

The red mare, as you dear Dear Readers know to your cost, is not just an actual horse. She is a metaphor horse. She is my totem, my shining light, my daily life lesson. After taking a holiday whilst I was cheering on her cousins at Cheltenham, she has come back into work, and I got back on her for the first time today. Warwick Schiller, the lovely Australian horseman whose precepts I follow, has a delightful exercise which he does with his horses every day. It is called: ‘Where do you want to go?’

The idea is that you get on and you let the horse wander where it will. The only rule is that they must keep a steady gait, but you do not steer them. This achieves many wonders, too many to go into now, but perhaps the most important is that it teaches them not to get stuck. If Red heads for the gate or the feed shed or the place where her little Paint friend is grazing, I make her work by disengaging her hindquarters and moving her in tight circles. When she goes off kindly, I leave her alone. Sometimes I wave my arms in the air, just for fun, and think about how good this is for my independent seat. I always love seeing where she wants to go next, and sometimes have to lie on her neck as she weaves her way under low-hanging branches and through the trees.

On this day of all days, after I finished the liberating, galvanising conversation with the agent, I got on the mare and asked her where she wanted to go. She set off to her usual haunts, near to home, and we described a familiar circuit.

Then, something amazing happened. She pricked her ears and struck off into new territory. She was going where the wild things are. She headed with purpose, without any doubt or terror, to the scary woods. The woods to the west are indeed dark and deep, with rough ground and alarming shadows. The pheasants which used to send her into shocked, vertical leaps live there, along with cohorts of invisible woodland critters, hiding in their umbrous lairs.

In she went, had a wander about, took everything in, and then found her way out again into the light. On the border of the scary wood is a ragged area where the building yard beyond the southern treeline stores all its old stone. Huge blocks of ancient Scottish granite lie there in heaps, along with old carved pediments and fanciful curlicued columns. Some of it has been there for so long that the moss and grass has started to grow over the sleeping humps, as if the very earth is reclaiming it for its own. This was not only far out of her comfort zone, it was treacherous ground, difficult to navigate. She was Magellan now, setting out without a map, going to the edges of the known world, into the realm marked Here Be Dragons. I stifled my delighted laughter, and went with her, wherever she wanted to go.

She beat the bounds, picked her way, sure-footed as a mountain goat, over the hummocks and crevices and sharp edges of the monumental stones, tracked her way past the young trees, and emerged, triumphant, all terrain conquered, back into the familiar flatlands of her own field.

I’ve been guilty of thinking she was not a very brave horse. I made a category error. It was not courage she lacked, it was good, sturdy, human boundaries. Once she had those, it turned out she could go anywhere.

There is a profound idea that when you work a horse well, you find out who it really is. If the human is not up to scratch, the horse may hide its true nature under a defensive layer of compensations and survival mechanisms.

Now she has confidence in me, the red mare may be brave. As my agent has confidence in the book, so I may be brave. It was a perfect piece of symmetry.

I cast away the old words, and wrote the new, and I had a humming sense of pleasure in the work. But nothing, nothing, could match the delight of that moment when my courageous mare cast off her shackles and headed out into the unknown.

 

Today’s pictures:

There was too much going on to take photographs on top of everything else. Here are a couple from the last few days. I’m afraid I am taking the opportunity to show you yet another lying down picture. Any excuse.

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She’s actually staring at the scary woods in this picture, because some invisible creature is moving about down there and making a racket:

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Stan the Man is always brave as a lion when he has that magical stick in his mouth:

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Wednesday, 18 March 2015

A small photo essay. Or, sheer joy.

I think, as I get older, that things often turn out for the best. Or at least, better than one hoped when the plan changed. Because I got stuck in traffic, I caught that magical programme on Radio Four I would otherwise not have listened to. Because so-and-so was late, I was in when an old friend on the other side of the world happened to ring up. That sort of thing. Little things.

This has happened in two different ways in the last week, both to do with the camera.

On the third day of Cheltenham, I was contemplating not taking the camera. I love catching my equine heroes and my old four-legged friends forever, so I can go back and look at them with love. But the problem with having a camera is that it does get between me and the actual world. I am so busy looking for angles, that I almost miss the beauty right in front of me, in an odd, paradoxical way. Still, I could not bring myself to leave it behind for all that, and I planned my usual snap snap snap. When I got to the course I found I had left my memory card at home.

Because of that, I have no pictures for posterity of the mighty AP winning his last ever race at Cheltenham. But I have it in my head, in my muscle memory almost. I can still feel my throat grow sore with shouting, the hard percussion of my hands clapping, the flat gallop of my boots on the tarmac as I ran to the winner’s enclosure, the beat beat beat of my delirious heart. I don’t have any visual proofs, but I have that moment with me until I die.

Part of the reason that I drive all those miles is that I love seeing the beautiful athletes up close. I rush to the pre-parade ring before each race, and on this day, without the camera, I did what I always used to do, which is get in right up close, on the rail, so I can smell the beauties. Racing horses smell of leather and air and excitement and honesty. I can drink them in and feel the beauty and the glory and the sheer power, right down to my toes.

I never took a photograph of Frankel, but I can still remember watching him stalk round the tiny little top paddock at York, under the shady trees. I can still hear the excited cries of the small boy who was seeing him for the first time, and the hushed, awed murmur of the crowd.

So that was a lack which turned out for the best.

Today, there was a piece of luck which went the other way. I’d done the mare and was dashing off to HorseBack when I remembered I’d left the camera in the feed shed. Back I tore, to find that the two gracious ladies were taking their ease in the sun. There they lay, as dozy and happy and at one with the world as any horse you will ever see, whilst Stan the Man capered about and the bright Scottish light fell down like honey.

If I had not been so dizzy and forgetful, I would not have seen that enchanting sight.

I did photograph it, and then I put the camera away and sat on the ground with them for a bit, feeling the bliss pour out of their great, resting bodies.

When the red mare first arrived, uncertain and unhappy in a strange environment with an unfamiliar, clueless human, I felt guilty. I had acted on a whim, and over-horsed myself. I had not looked after an equine for thirty years, and now I had a thoroughbred mare, and I could not remember how to do anything except grit my teeth and stick on. That was not enough for the duchess. She became troubled and unsettled and started doing wild Champion the Wonder Horse rearing, fast downhill reversing, and her patented vertical leap in the air at the very sound of a pheasant.

In despair, I googled How to Have a Happy Horse. That is how tragic I was. This brought me to this new kind of horsemanship which now gives me so much delight. That is why I can now ride her on a loose rein in a rope halter, and why she will take her ease in the sun, not even getting up as Stanley sprints and barks and jumps, and some random man in a huge off-road truck guns his way round the field because it appears he is lost, and the fellows up in the building yard make crazy noises with vast power saws.

After everything, I got a happy horse. And because I am a bit goofy and always thinking of forty-seven different things and so forgot my camera, I was in the right place to capture all of that sheer joy.

 

Today’s pictures:

Non-horsey people – look away now. These will sear your eyes with horsiness.

The regular pictures of the early morning. It was bitter cold last night, so the rugs had to go back on:

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Then I had to go back, and this was the first thing I saw:

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I thought they would surely get up as Stanley raced towards them. He clearly decided this was a splendid new game. They gave him mildly disdainful looks. They were OFF GAMES:

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He got bored, and ran off to chase pheasants:

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And someone went back to sleep:

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They say horses are mirrors of their owners. Looking at this photograph, I really, really hope that is true:

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I love the synchronised sleeping:

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As you can see, I kept on snapping and snapping, because you can’t have too many lying down pictures. Or at least, I can’t:

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Somehow managing to be completely dozy and completely elegant all at the same time:

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And then I went off to HorseBack, where the dear ex-sprinter Brook was looking wide awake and extremely handsome:

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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

An ordinary blog for an ordinary day.

On the drive home, I had such glorious ideas for a New, Improved Blog. Oh, it was going to be a thing of beauty and a joy forever. I smiled as I swung the car through the wild spaces of Glenshee, thinking of what treats I had in store for you.

Then, reality bit.

I am, as always after time away, cantering about, trying to get back into the rhythm of my days, ordering horses, family, work, HorseBack, Stanly the Manly, and the necessary domestic tasks which must be done to keep my life on track. As always, my logistical skills and my time management are sorely lacking.

I cannot remember now what it was that was going to improve the dear old blog. The mantra in my head says: try harder, work better, write sharper. I think there was a vague idea that I was going to give you not only dancing prose, but some DEEP THOUGHTS. I am actually laughing out loud as I write that sentence. Stanley, who was dozing, looks up in astonishment. He knows my limitations, and forgives them, because he is a very nice dog.

As it is, I write this just as I usually do, in the middle of all the other demands of my day. I write it, as I usually do, about forty minutes behind, chasing time as my sweet lurcher chases his tail. I write it, as I usually do, in the lurching hope that something brilliant will come to me, so that you might sit up and smile and say hot damn. As the words come out, that singing hope settles into ordinary acceptance: no prizes today.

But now, as I rue the lost brilliance with which I was going to dazzle you, I think: that is all right. It’s like me, this blog. It’s a little bit good and a little bit bad. It’s a little bit muddly, and a little bit goofy, and a little bit scruffy. In middle age, I wave a cheerful goodbye to dreams of diamond perfection, and accept the fact that sometimes good enough is good enough. I’ll keep on trying, because I believe in trying, and I love the triers of the world. But not everything has to be fabulous. Some things can just be what they are: ordinary, human, flawed.

 

Today’s pictures:

Glenshee, on the way home:

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One of my favourite of the HorseBack mares, at work this morning:

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I could watch this gentleman all day long. Even though this is an ordinary blog for an ordinary day, anything which has Robert Gonzales in it has a little sprinkle of stardust:

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Here’s another one of my favourites – KayCee, a mighty chestnut mare, having a little bit of a rodeo moment as she comes back into work after a long winter break:

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And then, having got the twinkles out of her toes, she remembered that she is a very lovely person and hooked on to her novice human like an absolute sweetheart, and even did a glorious posing photograph face for me:

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Very, very happy to see these two dear friends again, muddy and moochy and at peace:

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And they kindly did a good pose too:

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I generally bang on about the goodness of keeping horses out in the field. They are flight animals after all, and herd animals, and they like to move their feet. But after I spent half an hour brushing the mud off the red mare this morning in a vain attempt to make her look respectable, only to watch her have a huge, indulgent roll right at my feet the moment I put her back in the paddock, so that she was caked from ear to toe in black Scottish earth, I did suddenly understand why some people like a stable.

She gave me such a look after the roll. Ha, she was saying, it’s a spa day and mud packs are good for the skin. Well, she was saying, let’s see you try to get that off in the morning. I swear she rolled her eyes at my puny human plan.

Goodness, I’ve missed her.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Champ.

Alan King, on AP McCoy: 'We'll never see his like again.'

Yesterday afternoon, I was in tears. Not because all my fancies got beaten out of sight, but because a gentleman whose example I live by saw his dedication, hard work, belief, and refusal to give up pay off. The Champ finally, finally, ran his race.

The tears were tears of joy.

When I feel gloomy, or defeated, I ask myself: 'What would AP do?' The answer always is: ride another winner.

This Cheltenham is Tony McCoy's last. He'd had a few fancied runners, and they had disappointed. Even the famous McCoy drive could not lend their leaden feet wings. People were starting to get a faintly haunted look in their eyes: the terrible thought that McCoy might go home from his final festival winless hovered in the back of thousands of minds.

Uxizandre in the Ryanair was not the obvious candidate to pull the Champ out of trouble. He's a big, scopey, athletic sort of horse, and he's run well at Prestbury Park before, but his last two runs were rotten, and there was some suspicion that he might not quite get every yard of the searching two miles five. He was sent off at sixteen to one, very much Alan King's second string, as all eyes turned to the beautiful dark bay figure of his stable star, Balder Succes.

But the delightful Balder, a horse I have loved since he was a novice, ran no sort of race from the start, blundering about at the back with the equally out of sorts Ballycasey, who was busy bringing Ruby Walsh back to earth as only a thoroughbred can, whilst at the front AP had gone off at a furious clip, as if he thought his fella really wanted  every inch of the trip and could run the rest ragged.
I turned to my brother, who had doubts about the extra furlong. 'He's certainly riding him as if he thinks he stays all day,' I said, a little seed of hope growing in my heart. My money was on the other way, but I'd been backing the Champ all week, hoping that I could shout him home, as if the very weight of my cash might push him over the winning line. (I try to resist magical thinking, but when I'm on a racecourse, my rational self runs off to join the circus.)

Dashing off in front and staying there is always difficult. Commentators call the tactic 'doing it the hard way', although in a big, hurly burly race, if you can make your own running at least you stay out of trouble and get a clear view of the fences.
Uxizandre was seeing his fences with x-ray specs. He was bounding, pounding, leaping for joy, as if every atom in his body was scintillating with health and joy, as if this hour on this day was the moment he'd been waiting for all his life.

The further he went, the higher he leapt, whilst the fast pace was forcing good horses in his wake into making amateurish blunders. Uxizandre did not touch a twig, whilst the birch went flying behind him. AP must have heard the sound of thumps and curses in his slipstream; under him, the only sound was the glorious pounding hooves of a horse who is meeting every fence just right.

At the third last, the hope, which I had pushed sternly down, barged its way to the front and started up a chorus of its own. 'Oh, come on AP,' I shouted, unable to contain myself. He couldn't go on galloping like that surely? Not at that relentless pace, up that unforgiving hill? Surely the pack would come and swallow him up and a faint anti-climax would fall from Cleeve Hill like soft British rain?

The doughty mare, Ma Filleule, gave it a good shot. She put her tough head down and got her sprinting shoes on, but it was not enough. It was not nearly enough. Uxizandre was damn well going to write his own moment in history, and he accelerated away, something heedless and fine and uncontaminated in him - that pure brilliance that only good thoroughbreds have, the old call of the herd, the will to win, to lead, to be the man, all combining at the right time to send him past the winning post in glorious isolation.

Sometimes, a sixteen to one winner is greeted with puzzled silence. Not this one.  Four men and a dog had their beer money on him. But he was roared up the hill with the biggest shout of the meeting, as if he were a red-hot favourite, sixty thousand hearts expanding like flowers in springtime. 'Come on, AP,' hollered the crowd. 'Go, Champ,' I bawled, hardly able to believe my eyes.

Afterwards, half laughing, half crying, AP talked not of the winning, but of the thrill of riding a horse who could tank on and make such leaps.
Uxizandre's last two outings might have been dire, but from the way AP rode him you would never know. The Champ sent him off with all the confidence in the world, as if this was a the only horse in the country he wanted to ride. The bold Uxiandre responded, getting the mesage down the reins, stretching out his strong legs, dancing, romping, showing off, laughing at the rest.

'I'll miss riding horses like this, that jump like stags,'  said AP.

People were running to the winner's enclosure, points of light shooting out of their eyes like stars. I made friends with the man standing next to me. 'At last,' he said, smiling with delight and relief. 'Nobody deserves it more.'

'We just love him. It's the best thing that ever happened,' Mrs McManus was telling the television microphones.

AP's wife, who has had to watch her husband smash up his indomitable body for more years than she probably would like to count, and somehow always manages to be serene and smiling and thoughtful, was beaming with joy.

'He was slightly melancholy this morning, but he'll be burning with happiness now,' she said. 'He just loves riding in the green and gold.'

Into the cauldron of joy, the good, genuine Uxizandre walked without pausing, his ears pricked, as if he knew he was taking his place in racing history. A lot of horses would have baulked at the noise and the hysteria, but not this proper fella. He hardly moved a muscle as the three cheers flew up into the spring air and his humans hugged and kissed each other about him. He posed for pictures like a seasoned star, breathing softly through his nostrils, accepting a kiss on the nose from one exuberant gent.

The whole McCoy family were gathered, brothers, sisters, the father. 'We're bursting with pride.' There were tears from the sisters. 'They say it comes from the dam's side,' said AP's father, wry and slightly overcome.

'Phenomenal,' said Alan King. 'The dedication, the hard work.'

And then, because it was still a working day, AP marched back into the weighing room, with his trademark quick walk, to get changed for the next race, as if it were just another day at the office, and the cheers died away, and people shook their heads, as if not quite certain they had just seen what they had seen.
As I headed for the pre-parade ring, to see the runners for the World Hurdle, wiping the tears from my cheeks, I turned to my brother. 'I can't believe that just happened,' I said. I smiled. I thought of how AP's example lives with me every single day. 'And we were there,' I said.

We were there.

 

Today's pictures:

I forgot my memory card, so could not capture the Glorious Moment on Kodachrome. In some ways, I'm glad I could not. I had to take the pictures with my human eyes, with no filter in the way.
Here's a picture from the second day, of another great gentleman. He'll never hit the headlines or fill the front page. But he's a good, honest horse, and I've always enjoyed watching him, and I love his dear freckled face. So, not AP for you, but Sire Collonges instead, a worthy understudy:

 

13 March 2

PS. There will be spelling mistakes in this. There were yesterday. I write these in a hurry at seven in the morning. Forgive the errors.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

A different day.


The unsaddling enclosure at Cheltenham is one of the loneliest places in the world. It is here that the broken shards of hopes and dreams quietly swept away.
In that little square of green grass, as the cheers for Dodging Bullets and Sam Twiston-Davies rumbled from the winner's enclosure, a big black horse walked round whilst a small, huddled group of humans gazed at him in puzzlement and worry. The vet was there, smart in his tweed suit, but there did not seem to be anything wrong with the horse. He looked quite calm, not bothered by anything, just a little muted perhaps.

Sprinter Sacre was once a dancing, dazzling, gleaming champion, who could set sixty thousand people on a roar without moving out of second gear. And now, here he was, pulled up in the race he used to win by seventeen lengths.

In the pre-parade ring, he had looked magnificent. He was the same gleaming physical specimen that has delighted so many people for so long. Oddly, it was Dodging Bullets who would not knock your eye out, a little tucked up, a tiny bit starey in his coat. People said he was not a spring horse, and I thought he looked a little out of sorts. So much I know: he flew up the hill, whilst Sprinter laboured behind, and Barry Geraghty, who would never let anything happen to that horse, called it a day.

I had braced myself for the fact that the great champion had gone, but it's a melancholy thing to see. Of course a secret part of me hoped he would lift his head, hear the roar, and romp back to his rightful place. Yesterday was the day of fairy tales; today, under a surly sky, with Cleeve Hill doleful in the gloom, was the day of reality.

I hope they retire Sprinter.  I hope they find him something useful to do, because he's an active intelligent horse who needs a job; something not too taxing for the old ticker; something that will make him prick his ears and feel pride in himself. He always had a swagger about him, a hint of peacock preen. He'd need a little acclamation and applause from time to time.

Sire de Grugy also had to cede his crown, but I think he will be back. The ground was a bit quick and his preparation has been unorthodox and he's still got the fire in his belly.

Perhaps the most bittersweet of all was watching dear old Sizing Europe. He really was the pick of the paddock, looking more like seven than fourteen, gazing up at the gathered crowd with bright interest, lighting up the gloomy day. He bowled along for a while, reminding me of glory days past, and then it all got a bit fast for his old legs and he faded. But in that unsaddling enclosure, in contrast to the sadly shaking heads of the Sprinter connections, Sizing Europe's lad was wreathed in smiles, and Henry De Bromhead was giving him affectionate congratulatory pats. 'Ah,' said the lad, 'he's had a grand day out.'

One lady had come especially to see him, and was taking pictures, ruthlessly igoring the Nicholls victory party going on only fifty yards away. She obviously loved Sizing Europe and that was who she had come to see. She was allowed to pat the glorious old fella on the neck and her smile was that of a child who has been granted an unprecedented treat. The travelling head lass smiled too, as Sizing Europe skittered about, his ears pricked towards the applause that once was his: 'I'm afraid he's not very good at standing still,' she said. He was once very, very good at running fast, and he's still full of the joys and entirely undismayed by defeat, so perhaps they'll find him a race or two yet.

In contrast to Ruby Tuesday, when I could not back a loser, it was a day of defeats. My lovely Kings Palace looked his usual ravishing self, and went off with dash and purpose and I thought he would delight as he has all season, but he folded tamely, in the mysterious way that thoroughbreds sometimes do. It was a day of different pleasures to the first day. Just seeing dear Kings Palace had to be enough; the soaring victory I had hoped for was not to be. I really, really wanted the Champ to have a winner, so I could roar him up the hill, and the crowd could go crazy nuts in the head, and the valedictory cries of AP could ring round the Cotwsold hills. But he rode no winners, and seeing that familiar determined figure in real life for the last time, trying to imprint him on my memory so I could bore the great-nieces and nephews, making mental snapshots that I could bring out on a rainy day, also had to be enough.

Despite the fact that I bang on about ignoring the humans and going to see the horses, I did run into two of my favourite humans in the world. Both were huge racing fans in their teens and early twenties. I used to go with one of them to Sandown and Kempton and Newbury; we watched Desert Orchid together on his high days and holidays, when people would throw hats, newspapers, scarves, anything, in the air, and commentators went made with superlatives. The other I would see at every race meeting I attended, his eyes lit with dreams of glory.
Both of them took their passion and decided to make it their job. Doing what you love is great advice but very hard, but they both did it. They both say, with slight amazement, that they are living the dream. One is a trainer, and one a bloodstock agent. One had just come back from Meydan, where his most beloved old handicapper had just won a huge race, and one secretly believes that he might, just might, have bought the winner of this year's Derby. And only ten minutes ago we were all twenty together, wondering whether Desert Orchid could ever shake off his Cheltenham bad luck and finally win the Gold Cup.

They bought me pints of Guinness and the years rolled away and I called them my boys because even though we are all nearly fifty, they will always be boys to me.
The other amazing human thing was that, in a crowd of thousands, I bumped into the equine photographer I most admire after the untouchable Edward Whitaker. Michael Harris is not even a professional; he takes time off from his day job to take photographs of horses for love. Some of them are so beautiful they make me catch my breath. I've followed him on Facebook for a while and suddenly there he was, buying a cup of coffee from the same stall as I.

I've tried to take some pictures this week and I can tell you that catching good shots on a racecourse is one of the hardest things I've ever attempted. It's one thing, getting the red mare looking enchanting in her quiet field; it's quite another in a moving, teeming, crowded place, with the light seeming always to come from the wrong direction and everybody always moving about in a most disobliging way.

I take my hat off to Michael, who has taken his passion for horses and his passion for photography and made them into something very wonderful.


It was not Ruby Tuesday. It was more contemplative and less giddy. There was grit in the oyster. But without the grit, there is no pearl.

And when I got home, after thinking all this, and getting it all sorted out in my mind, I found that the one thing I had been saying all day had in fact happened. David Pipe won the bumper. And I had been on first thing at 8-1.

I laughed and laughed and laughed.

 

Today’s pictures:

A few snaps for you. If you want to see good ones, go to Michael Harris Photography on Facebook:

11 March 1

11 March 2

11 March 3

11 March 5

11 March 7

11 March 8

12 March 1

When I look at that picture, I think of one of the saddest parts in Out of Africa, when Meryl Streep says something like:

He gave us joy; we loved him well. He was not ours. He was not mine.

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