I got a little bamboozled over the weekend. The whole point of this new diary – and this new year and this new resolution – was that it would not be predicated on the lockdown. It would not be doom and gloom and pandemic and we are all going to die. It was going to be about the beautiful things.
And then the news got really dark and everyone was shouting again and there was an outcry about the schools and people kept saying that the Prime Minister had no idea what he was doing and that nobody really knew what they were doing and suddenly it was not beautiful at all, but buggered.
I didn’t really know what to write about that.
The funny thing is that there was a beautiful thing. Writing about the beautiful thing felt a bit like fiddling while Rome burned, so I hesitated for a day or two. But sod it, I’m going to do it anyway.
It was, you will be amazed to hear, about a horse.
In the world, there is a dear old fella called Seeyouatmidnight. He’s a very handsome, dapper sort of horse. If he were a human, he would be Cary Grant or Gregory Peck. He is also supremely talented. There was a time when he was going to go all the way to the top, but he had little physical niggles. Nothing catastrophic, just enough to derail some of the plans that his owners had for him.
In the end, the owners gave him to his trainer. I have a particular affection for this gentleman because he trains in Scotland. (There are very few trainers in Scotland and I feel as if everyone last one of them was my brother or sister.) He is called Sandy Thomson and he has a beautiful place and a happy yard and he takes his horses to the beach. I love anyone who takes their horses to the beach.
Anyway, now the pressure was off and dear old Midnight was not going to be the world-beater of dreams and there were no hopeful owners to think about, Thomson and his team could tip away, giving the horse all the time he needed and generally keeping him bright and contented.
Which is pretty much what they did, and he won a race and lost a race, as horses will, and nobody was quite sure what would happen when he pitched up at the Veterans’ series at Sandown on Saturday.
The Veterans’ series is the most brilliant invention and I wish I knew who sat down and thought it up, so I could send them a bunch of flowers. It’s a pattern of races for older horses, so the ones who are still good don’t have the legs run off them by the fierce younger competitors, but can still strut their stuff and kick up their heels and remind everyone that they’ve got all of their va-va-voom. It’s particularly lovely for the fans, because we get to see our old friends coming out. The veterans races make me a bit weepy from the start, because it’s like the band is getting together again. And, oh, those glorious remembered tunes.
I saw that Seeyouatmidnight had come all the way down from the north. That’s a long drive. I thought of his moments of dazzling brilliance in the past, and how much I had always loved him. I thought: Sandy Thomson may be very smiley in interviews and take his horses to the beach, but he’s still pretty canny. He’s not going to send Midnight four hundred miles for a lark.
So I whacked on a tenner for the sake of auld lang syne and Seeyouatmidnight set off near the front of the big field and jumped boldly and elegantly from fence to fence and pricked his ears and had a ball and I thought: even if he doesn’t win, it’s worth it, for that fine sight.
But he did win. He was thirteen years old and the younger horses were coming at him, charging at him, trying to spoil his party, and he put his head down and said, ‘No. Not today. Today is my day.’
He won by a length because he’s brilliant and because he’s talented but most of all because he’s got a tremendous fighting heart.
That was the beauty. It’s the fighting hearts that make me cry. And you don’t have to know anything about horses or racing to appreciate those; you just have to know about dauntlessness and courage and cussedness and how much you love the ones who get back up and get back up and get back up.
That’s it, in the end, I think; that’s all of life. It’s persistence. It’s going on and coming back and trying again. It’s knowing that you always have a choice: to stay on the canvas, or to stand up once more.
That horse has been on the canvas; he always stood up. His humans did too. They knew he still had it in him and they did everything they could to let him shine again. That’s why, I think, there were tears in the eyes of the trainer and the jockey when they were interviewed afterwards.
And that’s another thing I love about racing. There’s so much emotion. These are supposed to be tough people. They get up before dawn and work stupid hours seven days a week and know heartbreak like it’s an old hound. They are country people mostly, hardened by wind and weather. But they are always laughing helplessly with delight on camera, or stuttering with nerves, or weeping with joy. They talk about love, all the time. Just like that, on national television, in front of a million viewers. Even though they are British and we were all brought up not to do that sort of thing. Because of the stiff upper lip and everything. (Actually, quite a lot of the racing people here are Irish, so maybe that makes a bit of a difference to the whole culture. My dad was a quarter Irish and grew up there and he was always singing and weeping in a way that make his very, very English father raise an eyebrow.)
Anyway, the point is that there, on an ordinary Saturday, was a beautiful horse doing a beautiful thing and he made me laugh and he made me cry and then he got on the lorry with his special friend Bridget and went home to the Borders and the next morning Bridget was so over-excited that she staged an escape and galloped down the road with her friend Buttons.
That was perhaps the best bit of the whole story. Some racehorses don’t like to travel alone – there are famous stories of great champions going off to the sports with their special goat or their special sheep – and Seeyouatmidnight clearly is one. So he goes everywhere with Bridget, who is a glossy Shetland mare a tenth his size. I am especially taken with Bridget on account of her splendid looks and her extremely smart scarlet travelling rug. I was even more taken with her when Mr Thomson posted a video of her haring down the Scottish lane by her stables at full pelt.
It was so sweet and so funny and Racing Twitter was beside itself and, for a moment, it did not matter that the news was so bad.
That’s what great sport does, I suppose: lift the spirits when things are dire. That’s what great horses do, always. I love that Bridget and Buttons played their part. I love that the back-up team got their moment in the sun.
And I write all this down because this is what I want to remember, when this is all over. I don’t want to remember the terrifying graphs with the numbers shooting straight upwards or the furious political rows or the fear and loathing. (And there is plenty of that to go round.)
I want to remember Midnight and Bridget, making me smile and giving me hope.