Tuesday, 30 June 2015

In memory of Kauto Star. With love and thanks.

Kauto Star is dead.

Those are four heavy words to write. I never even met the bold beauty, yet, as so many people in racing did, I loved him as if he were my own. There are mighty horses that come along once in a generation, that have a sprinkle of stardust about them, that gallop straight to the heart. Kauto Star was such a horse.

For years, I tried to work out what it was about him that was so thrilling, so visceral, so lovable. I think it was because he had it all. He had dash and power, a supreme natural talent, and, in the early days, a rather terrifying and exhilarating recklessness. He sometimes seemed to be having a little joke with the crowd, ploughing through the last fence, miraculously finding a fifth leg, before picking himself up and storming to the line. He had a lilting exuberance, a dancing stride, a joy in him, as if he really loved his job.

But he had dour courage as well. I’ve seen him win on the bridle, as he liked, leaving good horses floundering in his wake, and I’ve seen him put his head down and scrap through the mud and the rain, straining every sinew to get his nose in front, his will to win gleaming through the gloom and the murk. He could shine like the sun, and he could fight like a tiger.

His partnership with Ruby Walsh was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in racing. They had a harmony and communion and understanding which is rare and glorious. They knew each other and they liked each other. ‘Ah,’ said Ruby, that hardened professional, on live television, to an audience of millions, ‘I love him.’

He was the beating heart of Ditcheat, ridden every day by his devoted Clifford Baker, loved and cherished and honed by a remarkable team, who kept him sound and kept him fresh and kept him loving his job. To bring any horse back, season after season, with all the physical and mental demands on those fragile legs and those sensitive thoroughbred minds, is something. To keep them winning at the highest level is an achievement beyond compare. Paul Nicholls deserves every single superlative in the book.

Kauto Star was as handsome and filled with charisma as an old school film star, and like any great presence, he knew how to please a crowd. He did it in so many different ways, whether it was becoming the first horse to regain a Gold Cup, or dancing to his fourth King George victory by an imperious distance (which means so many lengths that the officials could not be bothered to count), or, in perhaps his most moving and stirring moment, coming back when everyone had written the old boy off to win his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock. There really was not a dry eye in the house on that grey afternoon.

He had that extra indefinable something which the great ones have, what my mother calls the look of eagles. Arkle had it, and Frankel had it, and Desert Orchid had it. Horses are flight animals, easily alarmed by noise, but when Ruby Walsh would canter Kauto down in front of the stands after a majestic victory, with shouts and cheers ringing out into the winter air, the bonny champion would lift his head and turn his intelligent eye on the roaring thousands as if knowing that it was all for him. Pride is a human word, but I think he felt it.

Very few horses go beyond the racing world. But Kauto Star, with one of those mighty, streaming leaps, the ones when he took off outside the wings and landed as far out the other side, jumped from the back pages to the national headlines. For years, he was the perfect Christmas present, soaring round Kempton as if it were his spiritual home. His relentless, rhythmic gallop rattled into the minds and hearts of many people who hardly knew one end of a horse from another. But they knew brilliance and beauty when they saw it; they knew class and guts and glory. He was a supreme athlete, but he was also a great character, his bright, white face recognisable and beloved the length and breadth of these islands.

Like any storied character, he had his troubles, but he always came back. There seemed something indestructible about him. There were no doubters he could not defy, no fence he could not jump, no record he could not smash, no peak he could not scale.

It turns out, after all, that he was destructible. One freak field accident, and a superlative equine hero is brought to dust.

It was a privilege to have seen him. He gave me more joy than I can express. I loved him with that pure love I always feel in the presence of greatness. It is all sunshine in Scotland today, but it feels as if a light has gone out.

He has gone to run another race, somewhere we cannot follow him. I hope he has springy green turf under his feet and the wind in his mane and the echo of those adoring crowds in his dear old ears, as he passes his final winning post.


Today’s pictures:

Just one photograph today. I cannot show you a picture of Kauto, because I am strict about copyright. You can find wonderful shots of him all over the internet, many of them taken by the exceptional Edward Whitaker. Here is a picture of my blue hills instead. These hills are my cathedral. Whenever anyone I love dies, I commit them to the hills. The Scottish mountains were here for millions of years before I was thought of, and shall stand for millions of years after I have gone. I find a curious consolation in that, and a sense of peace and perspective.

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PS. As I finished writing this, and was about to press publish, I had to go back to the internet, just to check. My magical mind was saying: it must be a mistake. The big fella cannot possibly be gone. But he is, and so I make my farewell. He will live on in my heart, and in those precious memories which no amount of time can erase.

Monday, 29 June 2015

In which I defend the expressing of thoughts.

On the last blog, a Dear Reader wrote:

‘How C21st - someone writing at length on the internet about why they haven't been on the internet for a bit. Something has gone seriously wrong. Whatever happened to the quiet, gentle, personal, unexpressed thought? Everything has to be "out there" including "not being out there"!
My brain hurts!’

Not that long ago, this kind of thing would have made me feel rather melancholy. I would have felt a doleful sense of reproof, convinced that I had got everything wrong, that all this stupid blogging was the worst form of navel-gazing, that the internet itself was in fact the spawn of Satan and that humans really should go back to pigeon post and quill and ink.

Now, I have butched up a bit. I’m going to stick up for myself.

This is not a terrible charge. I’ve had much worse. But for some reason it made me want to mount a spirited defence. Not of myself, so much, but of the expressing of thoughts.

The ‘quiet, gentle, personal, unexpressed thought’ sounds enchanting. I expect there have been some humans who have had quiet and gentle thoughts, unspoken and unwritten, but I would hazard that most humans, for most of history, have been expressing their thoughts like gangbusters. If you walk along any city street, or get on a bus, or travel the underground, or walk in the park or shop in a shop, there are people, expressing their thoughts.

Obviously, some people are more articulate than others, and some more reticent, and some more garrulous, and some more taciturn, but the expressing of thoughts is pretty much what humans do. There are the holy women who take vows of silence, and the monks who go and live on rocks, and the philosophers in their barrels, but they are a minority game.

The Reader has a point, in a sense. The expressing of thoughts may tumble into narcissism and bombast. As one grows up, one tries to understand that other people have thoughts too, which, crucially, may be different from one’s own, and that conversation should be more like a dancing game of ping pong rather than a shouty soapbox at Hyde Park Corner. One learns to listen, so that the button is not permanently on transmit. In writing too, which really is the most shamelessly self-indulgent of pursuits if one thinks about it for more than two minutes, there is an attempt to understand the world, rather than lecture it. Or at least, there should be.

The expressed thought should not need defending, but clearly it does. I agree that some of the thoughts daily expressed are crashingly dull or rude or bigoted or platitudinous or repetitive or vacuous or cruel or stupid or bland. Not every mind can, all the time, express thoughts which are beautiful and useful. But that is why all liberal societies believe in freedom of speech. In order for the lovely expressed thought to have its liberty, so must all the dross.

I admit that I could, if I chose, express an awful lot fewer thoughts, and perhaps I should. Actually, as I write that sentence, I realise it is a beastly passive-aggressive thing to say, to make me sound much more reasonable than I am. I love expressing thoughts. Expressing thoughts is possibly my second favourite thing after riding the red mare. I have so many damn thoughts, and they buzz around in my head like cross bluebottles, and if I did not express them I should go bonkers. I could choose not to, but I don’t.

I chose writing, because I love it and I have something to say. I chose blogging, because I love the open spaces of the internet, where I may talk nonsense and put pictures of the dog and the horse and the hill and find interesting people I would have never met in life. I chose to play in the splashing pool of social media, because I find Facebook and Twitter funny and interesting and quite often surprising and sometimes properly profound.

I write about the internet because the internet is huge. To watch an entire new medium arise in one’s own lifetime is extraordinary. Because so many parts of it are uninteresting or workaday or stupid or vicious, it’s easy to forget what a revolution contemporary humans are living through. It’s not quite as revolutionary as the printing press, but it is changing people’s lives, and, if some of the neurobiologists are to be believed, changing people’s brains. Your own neuronal pathways may be stretching and twanging even as you read this.

Why would one not write about such a galvanic change, if one is to write at all? Nobody yet knows the rules, an entire new etiquette is developing, a novel language has had to be invented out of whole cloth and is continuing to develop so that even the grand gents at the OED have had to sit up and take notice. Nobody has quite decided what the internet is for or how it should be best used or whether it should be policed, and that battle rages on.

In a wider sense, far beyond this particular criticism and this particular reader, there is a school of thought which does not like the internet in its current form, partly, I think, because of fear. The World Wide Web is truly democratic, and pretty much ungovernable. Throughout history, the people in power have tried to control the word. That was why the translating of the Bible out of its priestly Latin was such a terrifying twist of the wheel. It is why every single dictatorship ever invented exercised censorship, took over the radio stations and the television and the press, shut down dissent and debate at the point of a gun.

The general horrified shout that all these bloggers and twitterers and Facebookers have no reticence or edit button or even shame, that they insist on telling the world what they had for breakfast, covers a much deeper fright. When this old school talks of the universal ‘they’, it often means some traditionally powerless cohorts. The complaint is often really about the women, the young people, the geeks, the gays, the previously unheard. Until really quite recently, even in developed societies, the means of expression lay in the hands of the elite. There were gatekeepers everywhere. You had to have a level of grandeur to be asked on the news, on the radio, to write an article for the press, to give a speech, to publish a book, to have what you had to say considered important enough for broadcast. Not so many generations ago, Mary Ann Evans had to call herself George in order to get her novels into print.

Now, the gatekeepers may be side-stepped, as the ordinary people storm the citadel. Not any old person is going to get a job on The Guardian or be asked on Question Time, but any old person can write essays on the internet, and be heard. Those traditionally silenced voices can finally sing their song.

As with all great revolutions, there is a price to be paid for this. Some of the thoughts expressed will be ugly, banal or almost entirely pointless. But it seems to me that the expression, if not the sentiment, must be cherished. Every time you pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice, open a political periodical, turn on Radio Four, settle down to the diaries of Chips Channon, read a poem by Yeats, remember why you love Dorothy Parker, see what your favourite columnist has to say, buy a broadsheet, you are voting in favour of the expressing of thoughts. The price paid exists in the fact that for every James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, every Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Daniel Finkelstein, Matthew D’Ancona, Caitlin Moran, there is an equivalent of that cross reality television lady who makes inflammatory remarks about fat people. She is the price you pay, and, in this rushing age of new media, it is almost impossible to avoid those ugly voices. There was a prelapsarian age where nobody knew what a Kardashian was, and most people thought that shades of grey were something to do with paint colours. A certain amount of quiet has been lost, but then so has a certain amount of complacency.

I say: throw open the gates. Express those thoughts. Let others express theirs. Take the good with the bad, the smooth with the rough, the inspiring with the dispiriting. The key to the new age is navigation. It is discrimination and choice. Find the thoughts you love, or the thoughts which challenge your own, or the thoughts which startle you out of complacency, and leave the rest.

The Dear Reader must express his thought, and I shall express mine right back. No single human on the planet has to read a word I write, in print or online. There is no press-gang, no three-line-whip. I shall go on expressing my thoughts, because I like doing it, just as some people like gardening or pot-holing or building replicas of Notre Dame out of matchsticks. And the people who don’t like that kind of thing can go on not reading them. And that way, everyone is happy.

PS. After all this grand argument, I do have one faintly lowering notion. I wonder whether the Dear Reader was objecting not so much to the expressing of the thoughts, but to the fact that this particular blog post was slightly dull. And the awful truth is that it was, a little bit. I had been feeling rather cross and blah, and I think that infected the writing. For all that I will defend to the death people’s right to say what they wish, I do think that it is a matter of good manners to attempt, as much as possible, to avoid boring the poor readers to death. This cannot be achieved every day – I am a flawed human, and those flaws will sometimes show up in my prose - but the effort should be made. So, if that was the charge, I must hold my hands up.

I also feel a sense of gratitude, because that comment really did make me think. Unfortunately for the poor reader, it also drove me to express my thoughts, at some length. Still, nobody’s perfect.


Today’s pictures:

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Friday, 26 June 2015

Ordinary life.

Sometimes I go off the internet for a reason. Not that long ago, I gave it up for a week, just to see what happened. It turned out that I read a lot of books. This week, I just went away, for no special reason. There is quite a lot going on in my life, some of it quite tiring and complicated. The internet, which I adore and tend to see the best in, suddenly felt like a vast, shouty cocktail party, where many people were talking about subjects which did not mean anything to me. I no longer wanted to get into long discussions about rugging decisions which were raging on the some of the horse forums I follow, or look at a video of someone doing something amusing with a dog, or even read interesting articles from the Washington Post. I thought I’d let the gaudy carnival go on without me for a while. People really did not need my opinion on every single thing, or endless pictures of my red mare, or reports on the dour old Scottish weather.

It turned out that I read a lot of books.

I’ve nearly finished Middlemarch. I stopped reading it for a bit, because I can’t bear it to come to an end, so I’m saving up the last part like a child saves sweets. I’ve returned to another 19th century Beloved, Jane Austen. I really did think I knew Jane Austen by heart, but it’s probably fifteen years since I last read Sense and Sensibility and even long since I sat down with Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion. I think they are stitched into my heart, because I’ve read all of them more than once and because of all the films and television series, but there is so much that is forgotten.

Austen’s unbelievably naughty and piercing sense of humour still comes as a shock. She can thrust her gentle rapier right through the ribs, piercing pomposity and self-importance and indulgence. Silliness is perhaps the thing that drives her most demented, and she distributes silliness freely among her characters, men and women both, and then shatters it, almost as if she is shooting clay pigeons. It seems odd, across the long centuries and the shifting social mores and the cultural changes, that she can still make me laugh out loud. She surprises me into startled shouts of laughter, and I shake my head in awe and wonder. I love her.

I’ve also been looking at the grass and the trees and the hills. Even under a low cloud, they are still ravishing and real. The Younger Brother and I went for a walk in the rain last night. It was fine, soft rain, and we did not mind getting wet.

The online cocktail party swings on without me, and I am glad it is there. It’s considered rather clever to sneer at online life and the people who enjoy it – oh, the grumpy trolls and the keyboard warriors and the anonymous ranters – but I think that most of the time the internet uses its power for good rather than evil. Everybody, after all, needs a baby panda from time to time, or even an amusing dog.


Today’s pictures:

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Saturday, 20 June 2015

Ascot: Day Five. And there is yet more love.

In the old days, this was the quiet Saturday, the Heath Meeting after all the royal hoopla, when everyone could put their hats away and let their hair down. Now, it is the final blast of the week, all the pomp and circumstance still going, and just as grand and thrilling as the first Tuesday.

It seems years ago that the bold and beautiful French grey, Solow, got the meeting off on a roar. Every story has been told. Ryan Moore has smashed the course record with nine winners, setting the crowds alight and leaving the bookies in despair. Richard Hughes, after a torrid week, had a lovely double on his last Ascot Friday in the saddle. Frankie Dettori hit fifty Ascot winners and did his customary leap in the air. The Master of Ballydoyle has sent out his traditional flying posse, all in perfect order, and Willie Mullins put aside his Cheltenham green for a top hat and made a lightning raid on the flat with Clondaw Warrior.

The princes and potentates have gathered many of the spoils, but, to my intense pleasure, it has not all been about the billionaires. Goldream held on brilliantly in a fighting finish for his two owners: a farmer and a butcher. The French have been dazzling; the Americans gave us a superstar in Acapulco; today, perhaps, the Australians may have their moment in the sun.

My biggest love of today comes not from the flat-racing headquarters of Newmarket, but out of Ireland, from the jumping yard of Willie Mullins. I love it when the jumps boys come to Ascot, putting away their Trilbys and dusting off their morning coats, always looking slightly like naughty schoolboys bunking off lessons. Today, Mullins sends out Wicklow Brave, whom I have adored since he was a baby in bumpers. He started off his career in flying fashion, then slightly lost his way for a while, almost as if he suddenly couldn’t see the point of the whole shooting match, before roaring back to form, all his early promise blooming again. Lately, he’s been running on the flat, which he has taken to like a duck to water. I’ll be shouting my head off for the fine fella in the last race, hoping that he sends the majestic Ryan Moore out of this remarkable week with a bang.

My other love is Telescope. He’s a classically handsome, strong, athletic bay, with a fine aristocratic head and a long, dancing stride. He’s up against two really good horses in Eagle Top and Postponed, and his trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, one of the grand old racing knights, has had a horrible week. Although Telescope is short odds, in some ways all the odds are against him. I’d like him to put a smile on Sir Michael’s face, and on mine too.

As for the rest – I’m very excited about Brazen Beau, the shining Australian sprinter, and think he could show that he is world class. He’s travelled an awful long way, thousands of miles from the other side of the world, and I hope the journey will have been worth it. Today’s Ryan Moore placepot is not beyond the realms of possibility, because quite frankly I start to think that man could do anything. And for my long-shots, I’ve got a little feeling for three Mark Johnston toughies at huge prices. It’s always important to have a sporting bet, and I do it in memory of my father, who taught me never to back an odds-on favourite. I’m particularly sweet on Dessertoflife, a charming grey filly. She only ran six days ago, she’s up against the colts, and she might not quite have the class for this, but there is something very taking about her and she’s worth a little chance at sixteen-to-one.

And then, after all that, I’m going to have a very, very long rest in a darkened room.


Today’s pictures:

Just time for two quick snaps. Apparently, the Queen likes to ride for an hour before the Royal Meeting. I naturally follow her example. Today, for no known reason, I got on my own little champion without a saddle or a bridle and had a bareback moment just a halter on. I have not ridden bareback for over thirty years. I genuinely thought I might just fall off. But the duchess was immaculate:

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Oh, and PS. I don’t know what is going to win the Wokingham, because nobody knows what is going to win the Wokingham. I’d love to see Intrinsic run well, but I really like Algar Lad for the very, very clever David O’Meara. He travelled incredibly well last time out at York, and won cosily, and he’s got course form and experience in these huge fields. Who knows, with a bit of luck in running?

Friday, 19 June 2015

Ascot, Day Four. All about the love.

At 11.45am on a quiet Scottish Friday morning, the following telephone conversation takes place.

Older Brother: ‘What are your thoughts?’

Me: ‘Well, I’ve got to go with Illuminate because of the twinkle in Richard Hannon’s eyes every time he mentions her name, and Hughesie has got to have a winner at some stage this week, and she was so impressive first time out. And then I love Stravagante but I know they are very sweet on Balios and you can’t rule out Ol’ Man River; he’s in my Ryan Moore placepot, because, well, Ryan Moore. The new sprint is going to kill me, because Tiggy Wiggy is one of the loves of my life, and I’m also a huge Limato fan, but I think the American horse might blast past them both, and when Wesley Ward says he likes a horse he is not messing around. So I have to have a Tiggy loyalty bet at eights, because I can’t desert her and if I did she would know, and I’m putting Hootenanny in an accumulator. And then I’m incredibly fond of Lucida and Found, but I think Arabian Queen is a huge price at 16-1 and she might be my little each-way shout of the day, she ran so well at Epsom and David Elsworth is so clever. The next is impossible, but I’ve got Dashing Star in my Ryan Moore placepot, because, well, Ryan Moore, and my each-way fancy at twelves is Watersmeet because I’m such a fan of Mark Johnston and his whole team and his horses are so brave and tough. By the time the Queen’s Vase comes around I’ll be on my knees. I don’t understand about Aloft, because he’s never gone anything like this distance, but he is the class horse in the race and it’s Ballydoyle and, well, Ryan Moore. My each-way saver is on Great Glen because I have so much admiration for Ralph Beckett and I’d love him to have a winner at the Royal Meeting. But really, I don’t know at all. It’s all love and hope today.’

At which point, I pause for breath.

‘What do you think?’ I say.

Pause. Older Brother: ‘I have no strong feelings.’

I look at my mother. ‘He has no strong feelings.’

She shakes her head.

‘Our mother is shaking her head,’ I say.

Today is all about the love. I thought that yesterday was not, so much, but then I fell head over heels for Time Test, who gave perhaps the most supremely satisfying performance of the week. You can’t really choose, because there have been so many great horses, great rides, great finishes, mighty displays. But there was something about Time Test which promised glory in the months ahead. And he was such a nice, handsome fellow. He’d been difficult and fractious as a youngster, but Roger Charlton had worked some magic on him, and got him to settle and feel comfortable in his own skin, and he went through the preliminaries with aplomb, and relaxed beautifully in the race itself, and when Frankie pressed the button, the horse stretched out his lovely stride and powered away.

The love for Tiggy Wiggy is for lots of reasons. She’s very beautiful and full of character. She’s a fiery little person, and she has to be ridden on her own at home, to keep the lid on her. When she gets to the races, it’s as if she can’t stand all the nonsense, she only wants to get on and run. She’ll do circus tricks in the paddock and going down, but the moment she gets to the start, she calms down and focuses, and when she blasts out of the stalls, she just wants to go as fast as her fine legs will carry her, which is very fast indeed. There are people who say she hasn’t trained on, which is quite an odd thing to say about a filly who finished third in the Guineas, even though a mile is not really her distance. But there is, I suppose, a suspicion that she may never be as imperious again as she was in her first season. I love her because she is idiosyncratic, and ravishing, and as fleet as fleet, and I hope they just let her go today, and she puts her best foot forward. The mighty American challenger may get the better of her, but all I want is to see her run her race.

All I want for any of them, really, is to run their race, and come home safe. I have thesauruses filled with adjectives at my disposal, but it is hard to put into mere words the joy that these dazzling thoroughbreds give me. They are all power and beauty and heart, with that hint of wildness still in them, that herd memory, which raises them above the common. There is a purity in them, which lifts the most jaded human heart. This human heart, anyway.


And down in her quiet field, my own little champion, so slow she could not even win a selling plate, is enjoying her breakfast:

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With a little help from her friend:

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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Day three. I need iron tonic.

Luckily, today there is no horse with whom I am in love. The emotion is too exhausting. Yesterday, my heart almost broke when little Integral inexplicably started going backwards instead of forwards half-way through her race. I was almost torn in two between admiration and affection for Dermot Weld and Free Eagle, and my old, enduring love for The Grey Gatsby. For one breath-stopping minute, I thought they had dead-heated, almost a dream result. In the end, I was glad it was Free Eagle who stuck his brave head just in front. I said yesterday he was a dark horse; that is because he kept having training problems and not appearing on the track. They all thought he was a champion, but then he would get something as entirely unstellar as a ‘head cold’ and stay at home, leaving everyone to wonder how good he really was.

Yesterday, he showed that he was very good indeed.

Today starts with some speedy two-year-olds who might glitter and shine, and then later in the day, the mighty stayers in the Gold Cup. I am nearly in love with Forgotten Rules, but not yet, quite. I don’t know him well enough. I’m not a complete slapper; you need to take me on more than one date. Funnily enough, my old friend of the day is dear old Simenon, who loves it at Ascot and has run some astonishingly brave races in defeat. He’s getting on now, and he’s had his problems, but for old love and loyalty, and because it’s Willie Mullins, I think he’s worth a little bit each way. Forgotten Rules could be one of the great ones, but he has never been this far and he likes a bit of give in the ground. I’d rather love him to dazzle, but my head says that it’s a mountain to climb.

I won’t be yelping and howling so much today. Or at least, that is my plan. I’m going to take iron tonic instead of Guinness and calm down. I shall need all my resources, because tomorrow is Tiggy Wiggy, a flying filly I love so much she makes me cry. And there is still Saturday to go.

Luckily, the duchess was stateliness itself this morning, as if sensing that I needed a moment of stillness and sanity in the middle of the hurly burly. We wandered about on a loose rein and I thought calm thoughts and looked at the trees. It really was very lucky that she did not live up to her pedigree. If she had been as good as her ancestors, they would have sent her to stud and we would never have met and she would not hang around outside the shed practicing for the Standing Still Olympics.


Some quick calming pictures:

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Ascot: Day Two.

I laughed, I cried, I shouted and whooped and hollered.

The first day of the Royal Meeting lived up to its billing. The flying French grey streaked home. He has a glorious combination of sheer talent, phlegmatism and doughty determination. He walked round the paddock like a dear old show pony, gave a little ah here’s business plunging leap as his lad let him go, and then cantered down to the start as composed as an ambassador. When a fast-finishing horse came to his flank, he stuck his dear head out and found a little bit more. ‘He’s the boss,’ said his beaming jockey.

My sweet, steely Buratino lived up to his youthful promise. Everyone was talking about the Irish horses, but Buratino has drunk deep at the Yorkshire water, which has flint and granite in it. His trainer, a charming, smiling Scot also has a streak of flint in him, and his string is famously tough as teak. He likes them out on the racecourse, doing their job, and they try and try for him. Buratino flew past the best two-year-olds in the world as if they weren’t there, with a poised William Buick on top, using on his hands and heels. I shouted with delighted laughter.

Gleneagles put his doubters to bed with a nice show of class. He only does what he has to do, but he does it in imperious fashion. He has said This is Mine to seven of his last eight races, and he knows where the winning line is. He’s got a streaking, raking stride, the stride of a pure aristocrat, but he can dig deep when he has to. Thoroughbreds have moods and mysteries, just as humans do. There are days when they don’t run their race. ‘No excuses,’ say the connections, smiling philosophically. This kind of consistency at the top level is not only a huge tribute to the horse, but to the entire team around him.

The old standing dish Sole Power was not quite quick enough on the day, and finished an undisgraced fifth, as Goldream and the dear old Medicean Man, fierce as a tiger at the age of nine, fought out a thrilling finish. I got the stayers’ race all wrong, but was never so glad to lose my money, as the mighty Ryan Moore guided Clondaw Warrior from last to first and blinded the crowd with his biggest smile of the day. Willie Mullins, that cool magician, put away his winter green for a shiny black top hat, and looked as pleased as if he’d just won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. Ruby Walsh, whose wife part-owns the good galloping fella, was dancing about in the winner’s enclosure making jokes about the Galway Hurdle, looking as happy as I’ve ever seen him.

And in the last, Washington DC came home for my money, putting the Royal Seal of Approval on Aidan O’Brien’s glittering day.

And talking of royal seals, The Queen looked as delighted as a girl as she observed the feast of equine beauty. She knows more about bloodlines than almost anyone, and has been known to leave experts floundering in her wake. She’s been trotting up the course behind her match greys since before most of the jockeys riding today were born, and you would have thought she had seen everything, but the smile on her face suggests that this fine festival never gets old for her.

Today, one of my favourite fillies, Integral will be the beat of my heart. She’s five now, so she’s really a mare, but she’s a light, delicate creature, and she still looks like a filly to me. She may have the looks of a princess, but she does not shy away from a fight, and I’ll be roaring her on. I’d love the big, bonny Ivawood to win the first, and I’ve got a sneaking feeling for the bold William Haggas filly in the Queen Mary. I can’t work out the Prince of Wales at all. The dark horse, Free Eagle, might show all his brilliance, but I can’t ever quite let go of my love for The Grey Gatsby, who has not been at his crest and peak this season, but could bounce back. I’d love to see Frankie do his flying dismount after the Royal Hunt Cup, and I hope Always Smile will put a smile on my face in the last.

More hopes and dreams; more flying finishes; more of those beautiful, brave thoroughbreds dazzling on the emerald turf. What a week.

Meanwhile, someone is dozing in her quiet field:

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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Royal Meeting.

In the end, because I gave myself permission not to write the blog, I wanted to write the blog. I am stupidly cussed.

I was thinking, as I rode this morning, getting the mare to do her dowager duchess dressage diva schtick, which she eventually did after some persuasion, about the things about Ascot that I shall miss and those I shan’t.

In the very old days, I used to see my father in the Irish Bar, usually with a tall elegant gentleman whom he would introduce as ‘my friend Bill.’ My friend Bill, charming, very funny, dry as a bone, and so self-deprecating it was as if he had done a course, turned out to be a man of some distinction. I only discovered much later that he had fought with the Royal Hussars in the Second World War.

Eventually Dad turned against Ascot. He grew tired of the hats and the heels and the cocktail party crowds, and he lost so much money there each year that he said it was cheaper to go on holiday, so he would firmly take himself off abroad.

For a long time, I agreed with him. Pushing through crowds who are all looking the wrong way (at each other rather than at the horses) became rather dispiriting. There is a yahoo element that is a little bit sad. But however crowded it becomes, however many absurd tottery shoes there are, and self-parodying braying hoorahs, and people who don’t know a pastern from a hock, through it all runs the enduring element: the finest thoroughbreds in the world. So I went back.

I had forgotten how beautiful Ascot was. The new stand is perfectly hideous, but it is well-laid out and convenient, and it cannot take away from that ravishing emerald sward that opens up in front of it like a history book. The history lives, out on that storied course. It was Queen Anne who started the Royal Meeting, because she wanted something nice and close to Windsor, and it is from Windsor that our own dear Queen comes, trotting down the straight mile in her open carriage with her match greys, an elegant echo of her ancestress. A band, usually someone like the Welsh Guards, strikes up, and all the gentlemen take their top hats off and wave them, with old school courtesy, at their monarch. I understand perfectly well all the arguments against a hereditary monarchy, in this day and age, but when I see that, I get chills up my spine, and I love the Queen and all who sail in her. No race meeting in the world has such a beginning.

Up where the old paddock was, there is now the pre-parade ring, a gentle calm before the storm, with ancient trees and quiet grass, and a perfect hidden place right at the end where one can observe the dazzling athletes, walking round like old dressage horses, before they are saddled. It’s as hushed as a church service, and the only time I’ve seen it mobbed was when Black Caviar flew over from Australia, and every single trainer, even the jumps boys, poured into the place to catch a glimpse of the super-mare. In my secret spot, away from the crowds, there is usually just me and another reminder of the old Ascot, a lady of venerable age and immense chic (and sensible shoes), with whom I made friends, both of us being wild about the fillies.

I can’t go this year, and I shall miss that moment of communion in the pre-parade ring, the extraordinary privilege of getting up close to that much equine beauty and talent. Television can’t quite capture the full majesty of the thoroughbred; it’s as if half a dimension is missing. Frankel, who brought me back to Ascot for his rampaging Queen Anne victory, was much more fine and delicate and handsome in life than he was in front of the cameras. It sounds odd, but there’s something too about getting the smell of them, and seeing the relationship they have with their lads and lasses, and being able to look into their deep eyes.

I’ll miss the wild roar that starts when a favourite hits the front and starts to motor, a soaring, swelling sound, so visceral that it runs right through your body, so overwhelming that it brings on magical thinking. In that Frankel Queen Anne, I quite genuinely wondered whether the roof would come off the stands.

I’ll miss running into my racing friends. I like seeing George Baker, with whom I used to go and watch Desert Orchid when we were in our raw twenties. He loved racing so much that he chucked in a perfectly respectable job and took out a training licence. When I see him, he twinkles at me, all those old memories still alive, and says, with some amazement: ‘I’m living the dream.’ I’ll miss going to see the horses with James and Jacko Fanshawe. James Fanshawe is not a trainer that many people outside racing have ever heard of, he is so modest and low-key, but he’s a flat specialist who has won two Champion Hurdles. Most National Hunt trainers have not won one Champion Hurdle, so for a flat trainer to win two is something out of the common. He’s a horseman to his bones, and watching him assess a young sprinter is one of my all-time great pleasures. (His brother sold me the red mare, so the Fanshawe family is very, very high in my hall of fame.)

I won’t miss the frantic dash to the train and the panicky picking up of the tickets and the failure to find a seat and the rather tiring uphill walk to the course. I won’t miss the crowds and the queuing and having to canter my way through the throng in my sensible boots to see my equine heroines and heroes, and getting stuck with a dead bore just when I want to go and see a Best Beloved in the paddock. I’ll miss my sneaky half pints of ice-cold Guinness and making friends with the random American military gentlemen who seem to favour the Guinness bar. (I love a bit of gold braid.) I’ll miss the august old gents in their special uniforms who guard the entrance to the Royal Enclosure. I’ll miss the atmosphere.

But the television is a good show. Channel Four Racing, after a rocky start with its new team, have settled down into harness now, and Nick Luck with his sharp tailoring and his sense of humour and his enthusiasm has grown into an outstanding broadcaster. I can watch the replays and see clearly the pattern of each race. I don’t get that on the course, because my race glasses are usually shaking too much. I’ll still have a great shout, and Stanley the Dog will bark and jump up and down, and I’ve even shipped it in a bit of Guinness, which is very, very naughty on a school day.

It’s all power and glory. The best in the world, up against the best in the world. They are flying in from Australia, America, France, Ireland, Hong Kong and Japan. All those hopes and dreams, all that thought and care, all that breeding and brilliance will be out there, where the flying hooves thunder down the track. It really is like Christmas and Easter.
Here is the old lady, many of whose cousins will be running today, very happy that she is no longer required to do all that galloping at top speed nonsense:

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I’m hoping that the cream will rise to the top today, and that Solow and Gleneagles do the business. If my old friend Sole Power can weave his way through the field with his thrilling late run, I shall cry tears of joy. And my each-way bet is the very lovely Buratino , a juvenile who is more exposed than his rivals, but with such a turn of foot that I hope he might see them off.
Be lucky, my darlings.

Monday, 15 June 2015


Although I have vast amounts of work to do, I’ve run myself into the ground a bit, so I’m going to give myself a little stay-at-home holiday. I’m taking the week off to ride my mare and throw sticks for Stanley the Dog and potter about and watch Ascot. I always feel faintly guilty about taking time off, because it’s not as if my job involves going down mines or putting in widgets on an assembly line, but there is always a moment when my brain starts to twang and stutter and I know that I will achieve nothing good by bashing on. I have to try and turn my mind off, so it will work again. That is my plan.

So, there may be a blog, there may not be a blog. Probably not, unless something very marvellous happens on dear old Queen Anne’s racecourse this week. I hope to the hit the ground running again on Monday.

In the meantime, here are some pictures for you. I took these this morning:

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Friday, 12 June 2015

An awful lot of love.

I woke to blinding sunshine and ridiculously loud birdsong, as if the local avians were having some kind of arcane competition. I arrived at the field this morning to find two horses and a human fast asleep. It was one of the all-time great sights.

My little great-niece came for a ride. The red mare was, as she always is, utterly enchanting when faced with a small child. It is as if she knows, deep in her bones, that absolute gentleness is required.

We played around with the mare on the ground, and she showed off her paces in delightful fashion. Then the little jockey got up. She was suddenly a tiny bit doubtful, as it was the first time she had been on the mare, but her mother and I delicately encouraged, and she lifted her chin and screwed her courage to the sticking place and got into the plate.

‘Just sit there for a bit and feel the mare under you,’ I said, smiling up at the little face, which had a mixture of joy and uncertainty in it. ‘Feel the peace coming off her. That’s it. Now breathe, big deep breaths in and out.’

She thought this game was very funny, so we did silly breathing for a while. The red mare went to sleep. ‘Now,’ I said. ‘Big smile. And wave your arms in the air.’

The arms went up, into the blue Scottish sky. The mare stood like a statue, still dozing. ‘Now give her a good old rub on the neck to say well done,’ I said.

By this time, as the small hand ran up and down the great chestnut neck, there was no need to instruct the smile. It was beaming out into the day, as bright as the sun.

We walked, very very slowly. The good mare, understanding that she had precious cargo, perhaps sensing that her young passenger was not brimful of cavalier spirit but feeling her way, put each foot on the ground with as much fine delicacy as if she were treading on bone china.

‘Feel her moving under you,’ I said. ‘And just go with her. Don’t forget to breathe.’

And so we did a little walk, and then we did some more standing, and the smile stayed steadily in place, without wavering.

‘And say thank you,’ I said, laughing.

So the little person thanked the big thoroughbred, and everyone was smiling, and the swifts flew low over our heads, and Stanley the Dog larked about by the treeline, looking for pheasants, and everything was merry as a marriage bell.

I was very impressed, and said so. Some children leap up onto that mare as if she were a Shetland pony, with no fear. Some of them want to go off on their own, and I take my hand from the reins, and, even though staying close and keeping a strict weather eye, let them ride by themselves. Some of them are so excited that they would probably kick off into the horizon if I would let them.

This small person had adored the idea, but was daunted by the reality. She loves the mare, and knows her quite well, but when it came to it, that big athletic body did suddenly seem quite a climb. She had to grit her teeth a little, and face her doubts, and she did, in fine style. Her mother and I were quite prepared to say: never mind, another day. But I’m so glad she did get on, because facing your fears is the greatest triumph of all, and that tiny girl could teach a lot of burly grown-ups a good life lesson.

I loved the mare very much for being so tender with her, and felt profoundly touched to know that I can trust this horse with one of the best of the Best Beloveds.

Then I drove the long way round to buy some delicious meadow chaff for my good girl, because it’s the least she deserves, and looked at the blue hills basking in the sunshine, and wrote half a book in my head, mapping out each scene as if I were watching a film, and felt lucky. The Beloved Cousin rang up, and I pulled over and had a long and fond conversation, and then went home and did my work and reflected that it was hard to think of a day filled with more love.

I think sometimes about the people I know who have had great worldly success, and earned money, and got their existential passports rubber-stamped. I admire them vastly and don’t know how they do it. I could no more build a business up from scratch or transform an ailing company or star in a film than fly over the moon. My successes and rewards are tiny, private, and make no headlines. They bring in no great salary or tremendous bonus. But they are worth more than diamonds to me.

A girl on a horse, the smiles of my family, the voice of my dear friend on the telephone, the rolling Scottish hills – these are my glittering prizes. It’s more cheesy than cheese on toast with extra cheese, but there it is: the truest fact I know.

‘Love the small things,’ the Cousin and I shouted at each other, laughter in our voices, mostly at ourselves, at our own follies and idiosyncrasies. But the older I get, the more I think it is the secret of life, if there is a secret. Take joy in the very, very small and the big things will take care of themselves. That’s my damn theory, and I’m sticking to it.


Today’s pictures:

Two drowsing horses, one drowsing human:

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We were concentrating so hard on the riding that there was no time for pictures, but here is the small great-niece and her mother before the Great Ride. You can see the Paint in the background, contemplating where she should actually get up or not. (The answer was: not.)

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The long way round to buy the meadow chaff. Not a bad drive to the shops:

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I’m not sure why everything was quite so blue today. The light was doing something fascinating, as if it were throwing a fine azure veil over the sleeping land:

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After everyone woke up, the Paint and her human went out for a ride, closely overseen by the red mare. She does not like her charge to go anywhere without a permission slip:

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Every day I think I could not love this mare more, and every day I do. It’s as if she breaks all the laws of physics and human emotion and neurobiology and I don’t know what all. She is a sort of miracle:

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