‘Out in the world,’ I say to my girls, ‘there is a horse called Enable.’
They look at me out of the corners of their eyes, half interested, half wary. They know that when I speak a sentence like that, there is usually a story on the way. They also know that my stories are never brief.
‘Have you ever heard of Enable?’ I say, my voice almost dreamy.
The girls are my posse: two beaming, spirited sisters who originally came to my field because they did not have horses of their own and I said they could come and play with mine. From that whimsical beginning, a true comradeship has grown. I’ve taught them everything I know about the equine, from a bit of evolutionary biology, most especially that glorious moment eighteen million years ago when the first, tiny, scampering Dawn Horses came out of the forests onto the plains, to how to get a modern thoroughbred to do an easy, extended walk on a loose rein. In return, they make me smile every single day. They help me work the mares and do the jobs. (One of them even has a horse of her very own these days, who has joined our herd and lightened our lives.) They also listen kindly to my stories. It’s one of the best bargains I ever made.
They know me inside out by now, and they know that when I say something like, ‘Have you ever heard of Enable?’ some kind of tale is going to unfold. The thick evening sun is gleaming down on our little corner of Scotland, and they lean on the gate and gently stroke the velvet nose of one of the mares and settle in for the duration.
‘Is she,’ says one of them, with a sudden burst of an idea, ‘a HorseBack horse?’
HorseBack is the charity I work with down the valley. They have a herd of thirty-five there, living up on the hill, and those horses help wounded veterans on the road to recovery. Not surprisingly, I talk about those wonderful horses a lot.
‘No,’ I say. ‘Not a HorseBack horse. She’s a racehorse.’
They smile back, with their ineffable politeness. They know instantly that this means there is a long, long story to come, with some words in it which they might not altogether understand.
They know all about Nijinsky triumphing in the Derby and going on to capture the Triple Crown, winning the Leger in a hack canter with Lester Piggott looking cheekily over his shoulder as if to say, ‘Where are the rest of you lot?’ They know this because Nijinsky is the grandfather of the red mare. Everyone in the village knows this story, because I never get tired of telling it. Complete strangers out innocently walking their dogs get told this story, if they are foolish enough to stop and admire the red mare. Four year old boys have had this story. If there is nobody else to listen, I sometimes tell it to the sheep.
The girls know also that, during Ascot week and Cheltenham week, I come down to the field with my voice increasingly hoarse from shouting my loves home, until on the last day it goes altogether. They know that thoroughbreds are very magnificent, and very fast, and very brave. They know that my heart beats out on the storied strips of green turf – at the Curragh of Kildare, round Swinley Bottom, down the cambered tumble of Tattenham Corner, and across the open spaces of the Knavesmire – where the beauties swoop and soar and give every last inch of valiant effort.
But they don’t know about Enable.
They don’t know about John Gosden, who trains her to perfection and who talks about her as if he is giving a philosophical lecture on the meaning of life. They don’t know about Prince Khalid, her breeder and owner, whose elegant colours have adorned some of the greatest racing horses of my life. (I give them a quick disquisition on Dancing Brave, and try to conjure for them how he flew past a wall of champions to win his Arc.) They don’t know about Frankie Dettori, possibly the most talented and complex and fascinating man in racing – a showman and a wild extrovert, who can light up the winner’s enclosure like no other human, but an athlete of such sensitivity and nerves that he is sometimes too overcome by emotion to give post-race interviews when he is on his adored Enable.
I tell them a bit of that. I tell them of the Arc, run each year on the vast sweep of Longchamp, where all the brilliant ones queue up in October to see who will grab the glorious end-of-season crown.
No horse in history, I tell them, has ever won three Arcs, although Enable gave it her best shot last year, when she was denied in a heart-breaking late surge by the doughty Waldgeist. Everyone thought it was over then, I say; everyone assumed that she would go off and make stunning, stellar babies. But her sporting owner decided to keep her in training, so all the people who loved her would get to see her at six, and she would have one last, starry spin at immortality.
‘And the thing is,’ I say, ‘that even though all the odds are stacked against her – history, statistics, even her age – I am starting to think she could do it.’
Cara, the younger of the two sisters, looks at me with eyes like saucers. I think: perhaps I told that story rather well. Perhaps I have enchanted her as much as Enable has enchanted me. Then her gaze slides away, across the serene paddocks, to where Florence, her very special friend, is quietly grazing. Florence was too little to race, although she was bred for it, and she’s come to live a quiet life with us, and she and Cara pootle about together every day, playing their own secret games and murmuring indecipherable mysteries to each other.
‘I think,’ Cara says, ‘that if Florence had raced she would have been very, very good at it.’
Kayleigh, the wise older sister, laughs and laughs.
What I don’t tell the girls is how long ago it seems that Enable came out to start her campaign. I don’t tell them how she was beaten in the Eclipse and some people started saying it was all over for her, even though her trainer had very carefully stated that she had come to herself late this year and was not fully race-fit.
I don’t tell them that she did make history by winning her third King George under hands and heels, and that even then those same people said that it was a Mickey Mouse malarkey because only two other horses turned up and they didn’t run their race.
I don’t tell them that her only other contest was an egg and spoon type of affair, more of a training gallop than anything else. She was up against perfectly respectable opponents, but Enable makes the respectable look pedestrian, and so she did that day.
I do tell them that while all this was going on, the new supernova exploded onto the scene, and her name was Love. I tell them about Love romping away with the Guineas, and charging away from the pack in the Oaks, and waltzing off with the Yorkshire Oaks. I tell them that the road to the Arc became a story of the old Queen and the young Queen, and that the youthful pretender had everything on her side.
Until it started to rain in France.
I say that there are very, very few things that everyone in racing agrees on, but that one of them is that Love would not like it soft. And the softer it got, the more contenders seemed to be dropping like flies. Love would stay at home in Ireland, and a few others had black lines scratched through their names, until Enable, who had hovered all summer as the uneasy second favourite, was suddenly backed in to sure-thing status.
I did not say, but I did think, that it was as if the fates, who had sent us the most demoralising 2020 in human imagining, had decided to give those of us who love great mares a present. If Enable was ever going to go out in a Hallelujah Chorus of magnificence, this was her chance.
And, in the end, I did say, ‘If she can do that, I shall cry tears of joy.’
They smile at me. Is there a faint tinge of pity in those young faces? Do they think, ‘Poor old girl, weeping over a horse she has never even met?’
They have that beautiful gift which the young sometimes have, of being firmly anchored in the real world. To them, what matters is whether the red mare is in her Place of Peace, or if Freya the Irish Draft has found her forward, or how much Florence the pocket-sized Thoroughbred has enjoyed her tea, or if Clova the Connemara is contented in the canter.
They devote themselves entirely to the happiness of the horses in front of them, the ones they know like old friends, the ones who make them laugh and make them gasp and make them exclaim. They don’t lock themselves into the house every Saturday afternoon and shout and cry at the television, at strange horses hundreds of miles away, running for prizes which mean nothing in this quiet, secret Scottish field. I’m the one who does that.
I say, catching a fleeting flash of inspiration, ‘I love Enable almost like I love the red mare.’
They understand that. I see it register. This means something to them. Their youthful, bright eyes travel to the middle of the pasture, where the red mare has sunk herself into her deepest dreamy trance. She is utterly immobile, carved into the early evening like a statue, every muscle in her body soft and loose, her lower lip in its signature wibble, her head low, as if slightly bent by the weight of carrying so much loveliness around with her.
She is as far away from a hard, fast, champion athlete as you can imagine; a million miles from the diamond sparkle of her grandsire, a thousand leagues from the seasoned toughness of the imperious Enable.
But these girls know her and they give her their hearts, and if I say I love a flying race mare almost as much as I love our dear old duchess, they know that really is something.
So they beam and gleam at me, almost as if they are wishing me luck, as if I were Prince Khalid himself, or Frankie, living on his own love and counting the hours, or Mr Gosden, thinking his deep thoughts.
I didn’t quite explain it, I think, as I walk away. But perhaps I came close.