Such feelings are the bedrock of the sport of horse racing.
For reasons I can only rationalise as born out of ‘ignorance and envy’ horse racing, the greatest of all sports, suffers criticism that is wholly disproportionate to any of its failings. I am prejudiced, I know, as horse racing has given me more pleasure than any other aspect of life and when its shortcomings are placed under a strong light I am as hurt as if it is a child of mine accused of a crime I did not think he or she were capable of. This sport, you must understand, is my sport. For a fulsome fifty years it has held dominion over my heart, perhaps presiding where a lover should preside, though what better lover can a man have than that he loves the best.
If you think racehorses are inadequately cared for go visit a racing stable. But be prepared to have your prejudice and fear excised.
What differentiates horse racing from virtually every other sport is that it is as much a daily routine as it is a sport. There are race meetings in this country on every day of the year except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and even on those days the horse will take priority over present-giving. The racehorse, whether in the flesh or from the pages of a newspaper, can hold a man’s imagination in thrall, the day always a mystery yet to unfold, the day not complete until each winner is known.
Where there is love there is beauty. Where there is age there is vintage. The lineage of the breed can be traced back to just three stallions: the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian and the Byerley Turk. The first recorded horse race was in 1634 when James 1st established a hunting lodge at Newmarket and presented a cup to the winner. What other sport can record its history back to 1634? None I suggest.
If I were to find the Queen’s car broken down on the side of the road and circumstance demanded she accept my offer of a lift to wherever she was going, we could happily discuss horses and racing for the entire journey. Our Queen is a noted authority on both the breeding and racing of thoroughbreds. When the talk is of horses and racing the social divide crumbles. The richest men in the world, you see, must rely for their sport on the diligence and hard-work of the groom, a groom who may have in his or her charge an animal worth many millions of pounds. And unlike an investment in art, the two-million price tag is put on public display whenever the horse runs in a race, the joy of winning or the despair of utter defeat shared by groom and ruler of a country alike.
But it is the horse, and our love of the horse, that proves my claim. Without the horse there is no sport. We, the human, worship the horse. Indeed in so many instances we put the horse above ourselves. There are more statues of racehorses than there are of jockeys, trainers and if you exclude the Queen and Winston Churchill, owners, too. You can be assured that there are no crocodile tears when it comes to horses. When tragedy strikes, and horse racing is a good example of nature red in tooth and claw, the tears flow direct from the heart. Although life must go after the death of any human or animal, when a racehorse pays the ultimate price heart and time fluctuate, to only move on because the daily grind demands it of us. Men and women who owe their lives and living to this sport freely admit that their existence is made better because of their association with horses. When there is genuine love and respect there will, sadly, always be pain. Horse racing walks hand-in-hand with destiny and reality in that respect. The death of a horse, any horse, is real tragedy, thankfully though it is not a daily occurrence, but its pain is on a different scale to that of the missed penalty, missed putt or an lbw with the batsman on 99.
I cannot convince anyone reading this of the beauty and great spectacle of horse racing. I can though make assurances that the horse is treated kindly and with respect and is cared-for as the athlete it is. And in later life, when the horse is no longer a horse for racing, its welfare is more and more being catered for through the good auspices of the many retraining programmes that are now in existence. Gambling, though linked through a shared existence down the centuries, is not the sport but an adjunct, an adornment that the racegoer can choose to ignore.
The heroes of this sport are not people; the heroes are horses talked of as if gods of historic legend. Arkle, Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Kauto Star, and the likes of Spanish Steps, a top horse in his day but not a horse to be spoken of in the revered tone you might adopt when recalling the exploits of one of the equine gods. Though don’t say that to Michael Tanner as he loved the old boy. As I did.