Recent tragic events at the racecourse – particularly the deaths of two horses, Admire Rakti and Araldo, after the Melbourne Cup – caused me to revisit a short story I wrote some years ago after a horse trained here, Benedict, lost his life in the Lincoln. I'm not sure I ever meant it to be published – writing it was more a way of trying to cope with Benny's death, which I still find hard to come to terms with more than eight years later. The backlash against racing in the Australian media following the Melbourne Cup was savage and, to a worrying degree, misinformed, despite a sensible and measured advertising campaign run on behalf of the racing industry in the daily papers during the Spring Carnival. I don't imagine that Benedict's story will change the minds of those who are firmly set against racing, but perhaps it will help to demonstrate how those of us who work in and love the sport are deeply affected by the death of a horse.
IT'S that feeling inside. A small flutter that increases through the day until the pit of your stomach holds the rest of you to ransom. Helping the trainer saddle is a good excuse to do something, to occupy hands and mind in an attempt to control the feeling of dread. The minutes drag by, waiting for the jockey, waiting for the horses to canter to post, waiting for the field to load into the starting stalls. The race, when it comes, when it’s over, brings merciful relief.
|Benedict and John|
The unimposing brown colt was delivered into the trainer’s hands a few months before I arrived at the stable. Both Benedict and I were green to the rigours of racing. The two-year-old had raced only twice before being found surplus to requirements at one of the biggest yards in town. There was no time to show his worth before the next year’s intake arrived. In our small stable, however, Benedict had a three-year-old season that was like a dream sequence: eight creditable runs, never out of the frame, three wins, two of those at our home track, the most special track: Newmarket.
That morning, the alarm, set for even earlier than usual, wasn’t needed. It's rare to beat the trainer out of bed but the excitement of Benedict’s appearance in the Lincoln at the first meeting of the Flat season had meant little sleep. The winters are long in Newmarket, the winds so icy they could originate in the Urals. Blasting straight across the flats of East Anglia, they meet no resistance from Newmarket Heath, a perfect landscape for setting racehorses against each other but offering no protection from marauding eastern weather systems. By the time Doncaster’s Lincoln meeting is upon us, the town’s inhabitants, mostly workers in the racing industry, have shrugged off the worst months of the year. We look only forward to a fresh start, a new racing season. That’s our new year.
We’d already won one battle with Benedict: keeping him in the yard over winter. His eye-catching season had aroused interest and a lucrative offer came for him from Hong Kong. Our biggest fear then was that his owner would accept a very generous sum for his now gelded and fully-fledged racehorse. But sporting owners know that good horses don’t come around too often, and Benedict’s honourable man stuck with the little horse who had already brought so much pleasure. He knew that money won on the racecourse is worth so much more than money from a business transaction which sees your horse race in someone else’s colours.
Lee, his rider and groom, was in Benedict’s box when I got down to the yard from our flat upstairs. Lee rode him every day, loved him as much as we did, and was there extra early to prepare him for his long trip to the races. Development work that year meant the Lincoln had been switched to Redcar, some hundred miles north of Doncaster. With horse and groom on board, our regular driver, Tim, left the yard in the still small hours. The trainer and I would join them later.
The Lincoln date had been etched in diaries from the end of the previous season, Benedict’s form over a mile and his ability to cope with soft ground making this an obvious early-season target. Thoughts of his reappearance sustained us through the winter. From the shortest day just before Christmas, we ticked off each dark morning, every dawn taking us one step nearer to this day.
Despite Lee’s coaxing with body brush and curry comb, Benedict hadn’t quite surrendered the last of his winter coat. A tad woollier in the parade ring than his rivals, he was nevertheless ready and was attracting attention in the betting ring. The jockey appeared, black and white silks, blue cap. The pair cantered to post. In the stand, trainer and owner said little, full of hope rather than confidence.
There are some horses whose entire racing careers are a bead-string of worries for a trainer. Never mind winning, young fragile bones and soft-tissue problems make just getting some horses to a racecourse a triumph. But Benedict wasn’t one of those. Apparently mentally and physically perfect for the job, his life with us brought not a lame step or fretful moment, just a willingness to work and an appreciation of being fussed over by whichever human friend happened to be near.
So to see Benedict falter so early in his race that day at Redcar wasn’t just a shock. It was scarcely believable. A bump from another horse in the headlong cavalry charge down the straight mile was enough to put him off his stride.
Then the jockey started to pull him up. Within seconds he was off his back, dismounting so urgently that alarm flooded me.
The other runners were still hurtling towards us. Desperately wanting to get to our horse, we had no choice but to wait for them to finish. The six of us eventually broke onto the course, running towards horse and rider, a steward's car stopping with room only for some. I kept running, cursing my lack of fitness, my choice of shoes. I wanted to reach him, but the closer I got, the more I knew that it was the very last place I should be.
A circle had formed by the time I got there. Lee was at the horse’s head. Benedict was frighteningly still, head down, in shock. The vet was speaking in a low voice to the trainer. I didn’t need to hear what he was saying, their faces conveyed the sheer awfulness of it.
‘He’s broken his pelvis, he has to be put down,’ the trainer says to me, trying hard to sound matter-of-fact when I know how much he loves this horse.
‘But Jack broke his pelvis and he’s fine,’ I shout, frightened by the eerie calm of the scene. ‘For God’s sake, can’t we get him to the vet’s, give him a chance?’
What the vet has said is that Benedict’s fracture is displaced and that he is haemorrhaging, bleeding so badly internally that he has little time left. His misery must be ended here on the track, where ours begins.
The screens, the very worst sight on a racecourse, start to be assembled around him. The trainer tries to take me away but I can’t go. I stay, patting Benedict, talking to him, hugging Lee, apologising pointlessly. No-one wants to walk away, to admit that we have to let him go. The trainer begs me to leave as the vet prepares to commit his sorry deed. We argue but Tim the driver settles it. Tim, one cool remove from the horse loved so much by the rest of us, takes Benedict’s reins and shoos us all into a car that will carry us back down the track.
We simply don’t know what to do next. I want to leave the racecourse but the thought of going without our horse keeps us there, doing nothing, saying nothing. A friend from the press room passes and asks how Benedict is. He wishes instantly that he hadn’t as he sees me trying to answer without choking. Other friends watching on TV start to send text messages; the grim news has already spread, the sadness of the day has been so public.
Finally, home is the only option. Lee travels in the car with us, the empty horsebox too much to bear. The pair of us can only cry as the trainer looks straight ahead. I cry almost as much for him as I do for Benedict. Every small trainer needs a chance with a horse that will bring recognition – a ‘Saturday horse’. His chance had come and gone.
Sunday morning dawned cruelly sunny. Bright heads looked over stable doors into the yard, waiting for their breakfasts. One head was missing. At breakfast, I open the Racing Post.
A photograph of the big race is a head-on shot. It shows the winner surging to the post. Far away, down the track, stands the small figure of our stricken Benedict, stoically awaiting his fate.
I can’t eat. But there is no time to dwell on sorrow. This is a racing stable and Market Rasen beckons for two of our young hurdlers. In the dark hours, I’d lain awake wondering whether I could return to a racecourse so soon or, indeed, ever. The problem with racing is that once you’re in, that’s it. There’s no choice. The bond isn’t with the sport itself, it’s with the horses. Benedict was gone but beneath our bedroom stood another 20 horses with whom we had an unspoken pact: to do our best for them if they’ll do their best for us. Walking away from them is unthinkable.
I had to gather my courage to go to the bottom of the yard and enter Benedict’s box, empty except for his thick winter rug not needed at Redcar. It has to be shaken out, put away in the store. That act is the beginning of acceptance.
Ngauruhoe and Bilkie are our runners this day, both having their second run over hurdles, an occasion that would bring enough nervous anticipation without the ghastly events of the day before. Silent, glum, we drive to the races.
As they canter to post, panic surges and I start to understand Benedict’s legacy: never again will I be able to go racing with one of our horses without feeling fear. Both horses are pulled up by their jockeys before completing their race: the ground is too soft. But they come home unscathed. That’s enough.
There’s no let-up. The next day we’re south-bound to Folkestone with My Obsession, a big backward four-year-old having only the third run of his life after surprising us with two third places the previous summer. On his debut in a maiden at Lingfield, he was beaten less than a length at odds of 50/1. The trainer bought him as a yearling and owns him in partnership with long-standing patrons and friends from Jersey, who have made the trip to see him run. We must buck ourselves up if we’re to do a proper job of looking after his owners at the races, sharing in their optimism of a good run.
There’s every cause for optimism with a horse whose only ‘fault’ has been a slowness to mature. And just as they can be at the heart of the blackest of days, racehorses can change a mood, inject some hope, make everything seem that much better, just by doing what they were born to do: winning a race.
That day at Folkestone, with perfect timing, My Obsession lifted us from the gloom with a performance we didn’t dare hope he was capable of. His victory will almost certainly not be remembered by anyone other than the five of us there connected to him. It would turn out to be his only win, several niggling problems in the following two seasons spoiling his early promise. But for that moment, for that one victory, long after he has taken up his second career as a riding horse, he remains unforgettable. The record will show that the big gangly horse, whose scope was such that he once jumped a five-bar gate from a standstill, won £3,562.35 for his Folkestone exertions. But what he gave us in elation and restoration of hope in that dark time cannot begin to be measured in money.
Those three days are fixed in my mind as teaching me lessons I had to learn. The sport is so much more than the kaleidoscopic flutter of silks on a spotless day at Ascot or Sandown. We readily accept just one of racing’s glorious fleeting moments as a fair exchange for the relentless work in wind, rain and mud. But that’s not always the deal. More often than not it’s an unequal struggle of a life, a life of balancing bills, managing disappointment, coping with frustration and, sometimes, of having to look a horse in the eye in the knowledge that the absolute worst is about to happen.
In those awful circumstances, what makes it possible to carry on is knowing that throughout that horse’s life you did everything you could to fulfil your side of the pact. Horses always keep their side of the bargain. Only horses who have learned the hard way that it is not in their best interests to do so ever let you down. Even then it’s not their fault. They are what we make them.
Some weeks later, we finally felt able to put another horse in Benedict’s box. Now it is occupied by a horse of a similarly charming disposition, a giant son of Danehill Dancer called Extreme Conviction (known to us as Ex Con). He’s a worthy successor, another cast-off from a big yard who has already won two races for us. It’s now Ex Con’s box but I’ll never come in or out of the gate next to it without seeing the big bright bay head with a white blaze and thinking, with a flash of pain, of the plain little brown head once there.
Benedict (Benny The Dip-Abbey Strand)
5 April 2002 – 25 March 2006
*Ex Con won another three races for the stable and retired in 2013 to the British Racing School, where he is a much-loved member of the team.