Today was the last big meeting of the flat racing season and many of the big stars came out to strut their stuff. Some of them, like the great stayer Stradivarius, or the beautiful, tough, dauntless mare Magical feel like old friends. I know their quirks and their brilliances; they make me gasp and they make me laugh. Strad, who has a marvellous swagger about him, has developed a terrific habit of letting it all hang out in the paddock, with a wonderful ‘Hello, girls’ kind of insouciance. The first time he did this, the camera could not cut away – I assume because of a reduced crew on account of lockdown – so the presenters had to resort to a giggling array of euphemisms as he swung his splendid penis back and forth with each step.
‘He looks well,’ they said, in voices muffled with hilarity, keenly aware that they were on national television. ‘A bit frisky. Definitely ready to get on with things.’
Racing Twitter, which can be very funny, was falling about laughing and competing in the euphemism olympics. I remember thinking that was one of the bright lights in a dark week. Finding something to laugh about felt like a lifeline, and Big Strad did his bit for national morale.
I missed him in the paddock today as I was late in from my own horses, so I did not know whether he performed his trademark Carry On Ooh Matron schtick. I hoped so. I was just in time to see his handsome face with its bright white blaze going down to the start.
He looked as bonny as he always does, a great, muscled streak of red against the green turf, but it had been chucking it down with rain and he got stuck in the mud and that was him. Frankie Dettori, who adores him, nursed him home, and I felt the slight deflation of anti-climax.
It really doesn’t matter to a horse that much whether they win or lose, although some do definitely have the appetite for victory, and my old mucker Strad will be back in his box now, in his yard, eating his supper, dreaming of past glories. All the same, I hate to see the champions brought low.
Magical too could not conquer, but ran her usual honourable race to finish third, and I went back down to my quiet Scottish field feeling a little melancholy.
ITV had run a review of the season, and it reminded me how peculiar these last months have been. First there was no racing at all, as the entire country closed down. Then it was allowed on a reduced timetable, with all the classics rescheduled, and jockeys riding in masks, and sombre huddles of trainers and handlers social distancing like crazy as the horses flew past ghostly, empty stands.
I remember being so delighted when racing came back, because I was in dire need of something to cheer me up, and then feeling utterly disconcerted as I watched these strange, silent victories. I thought the beauty and courage of the thoroughbreds would be enough, but I realised that there is an alchemy in racing – it’s not just the fleet equine athletes, doing what they were bred to do, flashing their speed and their strength and their bravery; it’s the joy they bring to all those thousands of spectators who roar them home. And it’s not just the money, although that is part of it; people who love horses will clap their hands red for a winner on whom they don’t have a penny, because they recognise and appreciate greatness, and there are few things in life more pure than a really, really great thoroughbred.
So it was a bit of a funny day, with my darlings getting beat and the recollection of that long, strange summer, and I stumped down to my own thoroughbreds feeling rather hollow and exhausted.
But my posse were waiting for me, with their bright smiles and their very own horse love. They decided they wanted to do grooming, so all the mares got the teasels combed out of their manes and their velvety autumn coats brushed until they looked like show ponies.
I had a call in with a writing client with whom I’m doing some intricate editing, so I left the girls to it for a while and marched about the field yelling into the telephone, ‘I think we need a semi-colon there,’ I bawled, as intense as if I were doing brain surgery. Every so often the young ones would look up and smile in indulgent affection, hearing my strange exclamations. ‘Yes, yes! Iridescent! Buffeted! Fantastical!’
Then the girls built an obstacle course and I finally finished my work in time to come and judge it. The red mare won, by a single second, and I swear I was as happy as if she were Stradivarius himself. There I was, in my scruffy coat and muddy boots, jumping up and down as if I were the owner of a cup horse.
She looked excessively pleased with herself. All the girls were beaming, and the red mare loves bringing happiness to the young people. (She is intensely gentle with them and she takes their strokes and rubs and croons of adoration as her due, regally bending her head so the smallest one can reach.)
‘You are,’ I told her, ‘The Queen of Everything.’
She blinked at me. She knows that. But she likes it when I tell her.
As I go home, the sky is high and violet above the dark shadows of the wellingtonias and the pines. I look up at it and feel lucky to live in a place of such beauty. I feel lucky to have my posse with their dancing energy and their indomitable spirit. I feel lucky that I have the dear mares to restore me to sanity, to bring me happiness every single day, no matter how mad the world becomes.
I think: I should look at the news. I should write about the news. One day, when this is all over, I should be able to look back and read about what was actually happening, instead of finding endless stories of obstacle courses and the red mare and me stumping about the field yelling into a telephone.
But I don’t have the heart for it. These things are my headlines now. The real world is too real.
I look back on this autumn day and I see not the rising graphs and the doomy predictions and the grave talking heads which populate the television broadcasts, but the gleaming smile of the little girl who led my thoroughbred to victory over a homemade course of poles and tree stumps. It may be a dereliction of duty, but that’s what I’m holding on to. Right here, right now, that is what is real.