I’m not suggesting that my life is a constant barrel of laughs. It’s not. I worry about things all the time: horses, friends, horses, money, horses, work, oh yes and horses. But I also know that I’m incredibly fortunate to live in a racing stable in a part of the world that isn’t as terrifyingly dreadful as other parts of the world, to do a job that I truly love, to be pretty healthy, to have many wondrous friends and family, and to have my special dog Blakeney lying at my feet as I type this, just as he does for most of the thousands of words I type every week.
|Stan and Bean with the fearless Natagora|
I guess I’m lucky to have been given a temperament that searches almost endlessly for a silver lining, and usually one can be found if we keep telling ourselves that it’s out there. Even so, that mentality has been sorely tested over the years by my involvement with this sport we all love.
|Roy, right, wins for the ninth time. Photo ©George Selwyn|
This week started with the hope of four runners, all of which should have had a decent chance. Two were ruled out almost immediately, Hope Is High having had a frustrating but not serious setback which means she’s on the easy list for a short time, and the perplexing Solitary Sister being just marginally unsound enough to have missed her intended stable debut on Thursday. Sussex Girl went to Yarmouth with an excellent chance and indeed started favourite. She failed only by two noses to win, which was tedious but not desperate, though an abusive email to our website as soon as she crossed the line just served to rub salt into a very fresh wound.
The message was actually tame compared to those sent to Roger Charlton and Mick Appleby this week, which were completely abhorrent, but this kind of modern-day poison-pen letter, made so easy by websites, email addresses and social media, really is a side of the racing business I could do without. Does anyone emailing John or me with abuse really think that we wanted one of our horses to be beaten? In racing, we all have to take losing with grace and dignity but that doesn’t alter the fact that winning matters above all else. It is the difference between us having a business and not having one, so please, anonymous, spineless critics, think twice before you spew forth your streams of bile.
But enough of that. It’s silver lining time, and the silver in this case doesn’t come much more precious than Roy Rocket. ‘Roy’, as he is now known by just about all and sundry (even yesterday’s Racing Post headline referred to him simply as Roy, which made me laugh) lives in the stable nearest to our house. It wouldn't surprise me if I came home one day and found that John had moved him into the house, such is his affection for the naughty, quirky, adorable creature that he bred some eight years ago.
I’ve managed to talk myself into believing that I’m a jinx for some horses. Ex Con won five races for this stable and I wasn’t present for any of them. It got to the stage where I felt that I couldn’t go racing with him as it would be my fault if he didn't win. I now feel like that with Roy. I’ve been racing masses of times with Roy but never on one his nine winning days, which is a shame, because as we all know, he only wins at Brighton, and I love going to Brighton. I especially love seeing and hearing the response to him from the crowd at Brighton, which starts as soon as we arrive and the lovely, friendly man on the crossing between the horsebox park and the racecourse stables booms, ‘Ere ’e is, the Brighton Legend’. And he’s been saying that for years, long before he was the Brighton Legend. But I think we can all agree, weird though it is that the word legend be applied to a horse of such glaring mediocrity, that Roy is approaching legendary status, and I’m pretty sure he knows it too, the clever old monkey.
My plan had actually been to go to Brighton as I had arranged to spend the morning in Epsom with Simon Dow on Friday with the intention of heading south after that. Then I remembered my jinx-like ability and the list of features I had to write before leaving for the sales in Deauville on Thursday and decided to opt to head back to Newmarket instead.
But even without being there, Friday was a very memorable day for a number of reasons.
A 4am alarm call isn’t everyone’s idea of fun but it’s not too bad at this time of the year, and beating the M25 traffic to arrive in Epsom for 6.30 made it well worthwhile. Apart from the fact that I’ve been going to the Derby meeting for years, and then to some smaller meetings, usually with Roy, I don’t know Epsom at all. What I do know is that the first view of the Downs, having cut through a suburban road not long after leaving the motorway and then ending up at Tattenham Corner, where that fantastically quirky course rolls away beneath you to draw your eye to the ocean-going liner of a grandstand, is just about one of the most spine-tingling sights in racing.
I love Epsom but I’ve always wondered if that’s simply because I love the Derby and the Oaks and the way the history of those races weaves through pedigrees like threads of spun silver, meaning that I’m simply excited about being there on that weekend.
But it’s not just that. Epsom is properly special. I love watching racehorses being trained anywhere and hearing trainers of different nationalities and stable sizes talk about issues, problems, thrills that are common throughout the sport. But I have to say it’s pretty bloody special being at Simon Dow’s Clear Height Stables on a sunny day.
There’s a clue in the name. Being on the top of the Downs, a hop, skip and a jump from the stands and the Rubbing House, you have to one side the most magnificent view across London’s cityscape: Canary Wharf, the Wembley Arch, the London Eye and the Shard — they’re all there as the eye scans across. But then swing around and there’s that most famous of racecourses, which, on a normal day, is criss-crossed by the 200 or so horses trained in Epsom as they go about their daily exercise. I’ll save the best bits about the morning for a piece I can’t wait to write for TDN, but I will just say now, that if I didn’t live in Newmarket and still lived in London, I would be making a regular pest of myself at Simon Dow’s yard, begging to have a share in a horse in training with him, and finding any excuse to spend a few moments with Billy the greyhound.
I would put Simon very much in the same category as John: a workaholic, obsessed with his horses, doting on his dog, passionate about the historic training centre in which he lives, seemingly a very kind boss and a good trainer who deserves support from owners because it’s just obvious in everything he says and does that he would do all in his power to ensure that their horses run well.
|Brighton racegoers cheering home Roy Rocket|
So that was a super start to the day, and getting home in time to watch the racing made things even better. Because Roy runs so frequently at Brighton and it’s often one of only a few meetings on At The Races on the particular day, the ATR team really does do a good job of building up Roy’s appearance (and actually, generally, ATR just makes watching racing fun). Maybe some people find it too much but of course we love the fact that a member of our family has become so popular. Matt Chapman knows John well and always does a good pre-race interview, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that it was Luke Harvey in the studio yesterday.
Luke is the current HWPA Broadcaster of the Year and he really deserves to be, because when it comes to racing he totally gets it. He knows all about the blood, sweat and tears, because he does it himself, training his point-to-pointers that he clearly loves as children. I was once lucky enough to be at an Easter Monday meeting when Luke’s dear old Cecil won and the look on his face when he led the horse back in was one of pure unadulterated joy. As Cecil’s daily rider, Luke knows just how John feels about Roy.
Luke said many kind things about Roy and seemed really to be enjoying the result of what was a moderate handicap as if it had been Derby day. In the week someone suggested to me on Twitter that I was wrong to say that Brighton’s August meeting was one of the best of the year. I had perhaps phrased it badly. It is clearly not the best as regards the quality of the races themselves, but the sheer delight of being on the south coast (on a school day!) with views out across the sea, having fish and chips, a pint and a punt, makes it one of the most enjoyable racing experiences I’ve had.
Brighton has a faithful crowd and a really friendly team at the racecourse, to the extent that you walk in through the gates and think ‘ah, here I am again’ with a sigh of happiness. I was stupid not to go and share the fun of Roy’s ninth victory with the ‘golden girls’ who always accompany Larry and Iris McCarthy to the races when Roy runs. We all miss Larry’s father and Iris’s late husband, Joe, in whose lucky old silks Roy runs, but somehow Joe’s luck as an owner is still rubbing off on us all, and I know that nobody would have enjoyed the Roy Rocket story more than Joe. In a way he was its inspiration.
Brighton’s card on Friday certainly wasn’t all about Roy though. Poppy Bridgewater, an up-and-coming apprentice I feel sure we’ll be hearing plenty more about, rode her first double. The first leg came aboard another wonderful old Brighton warrior, Pour La Victoire, who, like Roy, is now eight and is one of those low-grade wonders who make midweek racedays a bit more special
|Roy and Wasted Sunsets on the Al Bahathri...|
|...followed minutes later by the great Enable and Frankie|
Then rather poignantly, Black Caesar was one of the last runners for Philip Hide, who had made a positive start to his training career but recently decided that the show couldn’t go on. It’s clearly not a decision he wanted to take, and I wish it was one he hadn’t had to make. Listening to Philip’s young daughter waxing lyrical about Black Caesar and instantly becoming tearful about her family’s stable flagbearer was a reminder that, however small the meeting, or relatively moderate the horse, there are people out there for whom these results, these horses and these days really matter.
On Wednesday morning I’d gone up to watch Roy gallop on the Al Bahathri and only moments later Enable followed the exact path with Frankie Dettori. However much we all love Roy, and however fanciful my writing becomes, this is really the only legitimate time I can write the names Enable and Roy Rocket in the same sentence. She’s one of the best in the world, he’s not even the best in our own small yard. But just as Enable matters to Juddmonte and Prince Khalid Abdullah, Roy Rocket matters to us. And whatever the level of talent each horse possesses, if they can bring fun to the many while racing, even on the small days, or just to one person once retired into a different lifestyle, then that really does make racing’s lows much easier to bear while we wait for the next day in the sun.-->