“A horse is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle”
THERE was a time when I was sports editor of the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. Kildare is the centre of the horse universe; it is to equine pursuits what Rome is to famous ruins, Mexico City is to drug cartels willing to break the law in pursuit of a profit and Killarney is to the shameless ripping off of tourists guaranteed to never again return to Ireland.
Because of my job I received lots of invitations to ‘yard tours’, but skipping around a horseshit-strewn concourse checking out the shiny mane on the fruit-of-the-insured-for-half-billion-a-bollock loins of some 1998 derby winner was not my idea of an away day. So I forwarded the emails to the racing correspondent and awaited his report.
I knew what to expect. The yard of the latest trainer was always great, just like last week’s yard was. Just like next week’s would also be.
“How are they all so fantastic?” I’d ask. “Surely somebody is coming last in all these races?”
In football you lose three matches running and the press are compiling the book on your successor. Racing journalists never say someone should be drop-kicked off the gallops. Either they are too humane for witch hunts or they’re afraid to spook the slightly masonic horse world.
But as John Giles said in his great autobiography: if everyone is great then, no-one is great.
You’ve probably worked out at this stage that I don’t think horse-racing is great and this is a column extols the demerits of the sport. So I guess this is where I lose a lot of you. For the patient or the indulgent, allow me to explain myself …
Really, I should like it all. As a young fella I lived down a narrow cul-de-sac, up a steep hill, six miles outside Cork city. There was a riding school and two racing stables on the lane but to me horse racing was nothing more than an unwelcome preamble to live coverage of Luton Town versus Coventry city on Sports Stadium.
I’ve never written about my antipathy towards the equine universe before because I suppose I felt a little ashamed. All these people were so passionate about it so I must have been failing to grasp something. Perhaps it was a lack of maturity that caused me to fail to appreciate the nuances and grace of horse racing. Perhaps it still is.
All I know is that at 34 I’m unlikely to change my mind.
So this Cheltenham week I’m not going to do my usual, that is arm myself with some tips from the Racing Post and join the millions of instant experts in this annual spoof-fest.
Instead I’m going to be true to my horse-sceptic self.
But before I build up to galloping speed, let me record my admiration for jockeys. Anyone with a day job that involves such a lot of long commutes, early mornings, life-threatening working conditions and such little food is to be respected. I also respect stable hands or lads or whatever they are called these days. They love horses as much as I don’t and their dedication and expertise is rarely reflected in their pay.
I admire almost everything about jockeys and lads/lasses/hands, but I find them hard to take seriously when they start talking about horses.
“Obnoxious Syndicate Beast loves Punchestown. He knows every blade of grass there.”
“Glue Factory Fodder has got a bit of a cough. He’s in a bad form, so he is.”
“Tax Dodge is a right funny character, he’d crack you up.”
Come on. Rein it in or shout “whoa” or do whatever it is you do. This is a horse we’re talking about! A dopey horse whose idea of a good time is standing in a field all day staring into space … unless a Jack Russell takes a run at him, in which case the ten-ton genius will work out the odds and then canter away.
Yet every horsey person thinks they are dealing with Mr Ed, in full technicolour.
The reality is these animals don’t know their Cheltenham from their Chepstow. They’re only at the track because you’ve stuffed them into a box and driven them there. How did you get them in the box? A bit of hay and a rope perhaps. But the way they go on you’d think there was a conversation along the lines of …
Lad: Well, do you want to get into your horsebox, horse?
Horse: Neeehehehehaaay lad. I’d rather stay here in my stable eating and shitting if it’s all the same to you.
Lad: But it’s Navan racecourse horse. You love it there. You know every blade of grass at Navan racecourse.
Horse: Navan racecourse! Ah why didn’t you say lad? Get my coat will ya … I hope that Barry Geraghty is on board, we always have good craic together and he never whips me more than the regulation eight times….
Yes, that’s right, and you know that’s right: These super-smart, ultra-competitive horses that so love these tracks wouldn’t be inclined to run around them if there wasn’t a little guy on their back kicking and flaking them around the bends and over the jumps.
What happens whenever the jockey is sent flying? Sometimes the horse will carry on, jumping erratically and getting in everyone’s way. More often he’ll take off in the direction of whatever takes his fancy: an orange jacket, a flying bag of Taytos, another horse on the loose.
Honestly, they don’t care, and why should they?
All these people that love horses so much … they sometimes have a funny way of showing it. One day they’re whispering sweet nothings into the ear of their beloved, the next it’s “the Grand National baby, make me proud!”
Grand National day is when horses really do wish they could talk.
“Have you seen the f***ing size of that fence you demented f***wit? Are you on drugs? You’re on your own today boss.”
Now I’m as much of a sinner as the next instant expert when it comes to the Grand National. I have a tenner each way every year and marvel at the spectacle, but, seriously, it comes at too high a price. You have one of the most thrilling events of the sporting calendar but it’s only so thrilling because both horse and jockey are literally putting their necks on the line every couple of hundred yards.
I don’t see how you can square a love of horses with a race like that. I realise the National is a stark example, and is not indicative of what happens at the majority of other meets. But, the fact remains, it is a flagship event; along with Cheltenham week, it’s jump racing’s shop window.
Running over a line of crocodiles, skiing off a cliff, jumping over a moving speedboat … Ian Flemming had James Bond do some crazy things, but he never sent him around the track at Aintree or Cheltenham. A horse was just too dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle for 007.
So while you’ve got to respect the brave jockeys this Cheltenham and Grand National season, spare a thought for the poor creature that’s sent out under them at these tracks, where they have as high a chance as six in 1,000 of every race being their last.