The Racing Lord Giveth and He Taketh Away

It is over ten-thousand miles, twenty-four hours and half a world away from Cheltenham and yet the chill felt after last Sunday’s Cheltenham meeting reached even the spring weather of Melbourne. Horse racing has this unique bound with those that share it, an indescribable connection of thoughts, feelings and emotions between those that revel in a sport played out by our equine companions. Empathy doesn’t decline by distance, passion isn’t prevented by time-zones and utter heartbreak isn’t hampered by presence. The loss of Vautour, the retirement of Sprinter Sacre and the death of Simonsig aren’t merely words written on a page to those who share their stories; they’re blows to the heart.

To wake up to the news that Sprinter Sacre has retired causes a blind panic – why? What’s wrong? But to then listen to Nicky Henderson speak to the press is heart-wrenching. The Lambourn trainer has been a standing figure of the National Hunt racing world for decades, with his recognisable idiosyncrasies, quiet charm and overwhelming passion. However, this passion over the years has flowed from the professional to the personal when it came to one horse, Sprinter Sacre. The insecurities of a trainer, who for two years held perhaps the most brilliant horse ever at his fingertips, were always on show when Sprinter ran. The relief he showed to the cameras after Sprinter returned safely was numbing: Nicky Henderson loved and cared for this horse so much (and knew so did many thousands of fans worldwide) that he was terrified. Terrified every day of making a mistake with ‘Racing’s horse’. Terrified of pushing too far and yet terrified of not pushing enough.

Then the pressure lifted as if the stove had dropped in temperature: the teapot’s lid stopped shaking as the liquid inside settled. His return to action in 2015 showed not a horse without peers, but one that simply wasn’t quite up to it. That’s what allowed him to come back. The burden of the unbeatable beast had put doubts in Nicky Henderson’s mind when he should have had none, but when left with a horse who needed to improve he knew exactly the route he should take. The Cheltenham win in November 2015 was good, but still, it wasn’t the same. No pressure. Then he beat Sire De Grugy and for the first time he knuckled down and showed the brave Moore horse how much fight he truly had. Still, Sire De Grugy no longer sat upon the throne of Champion Chasers; it was Un De Sceaux that he would need to take on. Then at Cheltenham, at the Festival, in front of the most loving crowd of National Hunt fanatics he produced a spectacle like no other. He was back. The pressure was back on. Henderson’s heart beats double time. It’s too much.

To be able to retire Sprinter Sacre healthy at Cheltenham is a gift to the National Hunt racing community, but it’s also a gift from us in return. To thank a beautiful, outstanding horse for his services to our joy at the home of racing is the perfect conclusion to a perfect racing story. Nicky Henderson’s words afterwards were too emotional to bare to those listening in, finally putting into words the insecurities we had seen on his face. “It’s been a pretty emotional time. He’s been a great part of our lives. It’s been an extraordinary journey. What happened last year was something that will never be repeated in my lifetime. It took us all to the brink.” Words of the trainer, yet the thoughts of a nation.

Then racing crushed us in a way few sports can. To remind us of the highs, the spectacular highs of an industry we’re not just monetarily invested in but emotionally bound to too was emotional kidnap, but to assault us in one foul swoop was emotional devastation. Without knowing it, racing fans lose their emotional sovereignty when they move into the sport, and the Racing Lord holds that power to wield as he wishes, to give or to take away. Simonsig’s passing just hours after, minutes really, was not fair. Simon Holt knew it as soon as he saw it: “I’m terribly sorry to say he’s injured; this day really is playing on the heartstrings.” The tears we saw early in Henderson’s eyes were nothing like the jolt we felt hearing those words, or the stab of pain in the gut when the cameras catch Henderson walking alone back up the walkway. He wasn’t alone, not at all, but it didn’t matter.

Then Haydock arrives and the see-saw finally lifts from the tragic ground to head to towards the side marked ‘triumph’. Cue Card is the epitome of racing, the textbook horse every fan, owner, trainer, jockey wishes to be associated with. Six years ago he won the two-mile Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival. This year, he ran – and was terribly unlucky in – the feature race of the Festival, the Gold Cup. He’s perfection, a gift that keeps on giving. To win that Betfair Chase in the manner that he did was simply outstanding, brushing aside the unbeaten Gold Cup hero Coneygree in facile fashion, before walking into the paddock ear’s pricked, as if little had been exerted. It was that ease that was the most impressive part to the eye. And for the softly-spoken Colin Tizzard, a farmer from Dorset, and Jean Bishop, who has held onto the horse since the day they bought him. The story writes itself.

Yet this battle has only just begun. Sara Bradstock and Coneygree did not quite secede from their crown claims yet and bow to the Cue Card King. “We’ll be back. He won’t beat us again.” And you believe her. Just as two, three (too many) stars depart the racing scene a duel royale looks set to take centre stage over 2016/2017 season. The Lord has given it again. The drug is intoxicating, even the lows aren’t sufficient to stop us from quitting; we can’t escape while horses like these anthropomorphise themselves to us. Bravery, courage, character, they all have it. The lord taketh away in the most devastating fashion, but it’s devastating only because when he gives it, he gives it so so good.