A Different Perspective 

Racehorses on Warren Hill in Newmarket | Emma Berry


For weeks before the Guineas meeting there will have been talk about the ante-post favourites, the big stables, the rich and famous owners. There will have been acres of press about the betting markets and the numbers and every single journalist will have tried to squeeze some clue out of the trainers, who don't want to give any clues.

In some strange way, the horse can get lost in all this. I mean the horse in general–not a single Classic contender, but all the horses, the roughly 2,500 Thoroughbreds who live in Newmarket.

Racing is unique among elite sports because of the horse. The horse brings something extra to the party–a mystery, because anything that lives across the species barrier will always retain a haunting mystery; a pure aesthetic, because the Thoroughbred will make even a Vogue supermodel look ordinary; and an element of relationship and connection, because the women and men who can get into the horses' minds will always get the most out of them. 

What I mean is that it's a whole lot more than: extremely rich person buys the most fabulous breeding on the planet and sends the resulting colt or filly to a famous trainer in a storied yard and everyone starts counting their money. I'm being reductive, but I'm doing that on purpose, because sometimes it seems to me that this is the story that gets told the most. That's the nature of news; that's how headlines work. But still. It leaves something out.

Of course there have always been dominant yards and great sires and owners with vast chequebooks. I've just been round the National Horseracing Museum, and there they all are, the titans, with their hats and their frock coats and their deferential servants. There are the earls and baronets, the Duke of Portland and Lord Rosebery, the only sitting prime minister who bred and owned a Derby winner. There is the skeleton of Hyperion, an astonishing sight and, in the empty rooms of Palace House, the Stubbs pictures of the fine thoroughbreds of the eighteenth century. 

He put the horse at centre stage. There is no fabled owner or breeder; there is just the horse with a lad. That's the focus and locus of beauty, so alive that it holds the gaze and the imagination. That's how it all started, and that's how it is still, for me.

I drove the 500 miles from Scotland because I wanted to see the horses. I grew up in a National Hunt yard and Thoroughbreds were my first memories and my first love. There's no racing in Aberdeenshire and I can only watch the beauties on the television. To come south for these first Classics of the season was a treat not because of the betting markets or the form or even the headline acts. I wanted to see them all–the fillies and colts close-up in the pre-parade ring, the strings of unknowns up on the Heath, perhaps a glimpse of an old favourite out at exercise.

I am staying with friends who have a small stable in the middle of the town. I wake up to the sound of gentle, clopping hooves as the horses come out for first lot. It's a relaxed place and the horses are happy and friendly. (They all want to come and say hello, a terrific sign in my book. They think humans are A Good Thing.) This is keen pleasure for me, even though these are not in the Classic grade and will not live large in the imagination of the wider public. But they have the beauty and grace and intelligence that Thoroughbreds carry; they have the history running in their veins; they can trace their ancestry back to the moment when Captain Byerley brought his brave horse home from the wars.

That's another part of the beauty, for me: the history. Someone said, at the races, that nobody knows who Fred Archer is any more. Can this really be true? I have just stared at the revolver with which he killed himself, which is baldly displayed in the museum. It is a shining silver object, with no hint of the misery it rubbed out, and I have spent dreamy hours at the yard he built. There are moments, as I stand on Warren Hill and look at the horses silhouetted against the sky, when I can imagine Stubbs himself painting that scene, or conjure a vision of Charles II camped in the town with his entire entourage. (Pepys wrote on April 26, 1669, 'The King and Court went out of town to Newmarket this morning betimes, for a week.' This happened quite a lot, to the disgust of those courtiers who had no interest in ephemeral sporting pursuits.)

There's a trainer I know who can talk of horses from 100 years ago as if they had run yesterday, and the more recent history is not entirely lost to me either. I drive out of town, past the sweeping Suffolk hedges and the immaculately-railed studs, where every spring a new crop of dreams are born, to see a dear friend who has worked in racing since he was hardly more than a boy. He tells me of going round evening stables with Sir Henry Cecil, and how Henry would say, as if on a whim, “Let's go and see this one,” and then he'd get to the box and run his hands over a smooth back and stand back and simply stare.

“I didn't say anything,” my friend told me. “He needed to look and look and look at his horse. So we'd stand in silence until he'd had enough, and then he'd say there was another one he'd want to look at, and we'd be off again.”

I love the picture of Sir Henry gazing and gazing at his horses. I think, fancifully, that perhaps he looked with the same intensity that I do: seeing the beauty, seeing the history, seeing the promise.

At the races, there is the fascinating blend of ancient and modern. There are the young people in their sharp suits and summer dresses, shouting on the rails, and the old school, the men still wearing Trilbies despite it being May, the women in sensible shoes so they can get about to see the runners. I hear one retired  horseman say, “I don't put myself about much these days.” He watches over proceedings like an elder statesman, as if to see that all is well.

There is a murmur about the place, as the Flat rouses itself back to life after the long winter. (And there was a metaphorical winter too, during lockdown, when meetings went on behind closed doors and horses raced past empty, ghostly stands.) What surprises me, after so long away from a racecourse, is how fine and delicate these horses are in life. The camera blunts them and flattens them and somehow enlarges them, all at the same time. You can't feel the energy that flows off them when you are watching on a screen. In real life, the intense individuality of each one is striking. There are the young ones who are poised and sanguine, already professionals; the ones for whom it is all a bit too much, who need reassurance; the ones who look slightly startled but willing to take it on trust that they will be all right.

The other thing that surprises me is how whole-heartedly the crowd cheers them home. Even on Friday and Sunday, when the stands are not rammed, the noise rises in a crescendo of excitement, of released tension, joy, perhaps even hope. Some will be shouting because they've won a hundred quid; some because they love a good finish or a certain jockey; some because they are infected by the sound of the drumming hooves and the rising voice of the commentator and their fellow racegoers. I mostly don't have a dog in the hunt, so I shout for the grace and the guts and the refusal to give up. (I like those qualities in humans; I love them in horses.)

As always, some of the beauties surprise and some disappoint. The one that perhaps gives me most pleasure is Cachet, the filly who goes to the front in the 1000 Guineas and stays there and stays there and just holds on, from fast-finishing rivals.

She's a delicate thing, very charming, clearly with a core of steel. My brilliant friend, who is a breeding expert and knows the bloodlines upside down and inside out, sees her through the lens of great sires and brilliant broodmares. The people who understand the ratings and the betting regard her with slight surprise, because she was 16-1 and had a bit to find on the book. (She found it.) I see her as my favourite kind of character–an unassuming person who creates no drama and no fuss and goes out and does a difficult thing whilst making it look straightforward. 

Afterwards, the winner's enclosure was rammed. Cachet belongs to a syndicate, and she appears to have many, many owners. Some of them were literally jumping for joy. All of them wanted to pat her and have her photograph taken with her. She's still young and she'd just run the hardest race of her life and she was in the throes of an adrenaline spike and she could have told these legions of strangers to sod off. (She has no idea that they pay for her feed and her hay and the people who look after her every day.) But she didn't. She politely allowed the hullabaloo to go on around her until all her owners had their moment of a lifetime. 

Even the most beady commentators looked a little misty at the outpouring of joy. It wasn't the billionaires and the plutocrats–and I'm not being disdainful of them because they put a lot into racing and they deserve their delight like everybody else; it's more that it's nice to see non-famous people getting their moment in the sun. It was a bunch of exceptionally happy men and women, everyday types to whom the ordinary viewer could relate. “Good for racing,” said the beady commentators, judiciously. Good for humanity, I thought, moved.

The next morning, Racecourse Side was almost deserted. The caravan had packed up for another year. There is a ravishing woodland walk there, a path under the green trees packed with woodchippings so the horses can comfortably do their slower work, walking and trotting to keep their muscles loose and easy. Across on Warren Hill, streaming lines of Thoroughbreds were flying up the gallops and trainers were out on their trusty hacks, but here there was a quiet woodland wonderland giving onto broad acres of smooth turf, under a wide, wide sky.

Suddenly, out of the quiet, a string of horses appeared. I realised this was Cachet's crew. 'Good morning, good morning!' we merrily called at each other. The friend who had taken me on this lovely route knows everyone, so her good mornings were familiar. Mine were the exclamations of a happy stranger–almost a thank you to the riders for coming out on those ravishing horses so I could get a last hit of beauty before I drive north. They were still smiling with victory and we congratulated them and the smiles grew wider. That's it, I thought, right there: the horse factor and the human factor, the love and the joy and the beauty.

Later, after going to the museum, I stopped in a small restaurant for something to eat. (I was famished after all that fascination.) It was a regular place, nothing fancy, so I was startled to see Cachet's trainer a few tables along. There were about ten people in the whole place and he was one of them. 

There was a lot of laughter. And then a sentence floated across the empty room. 

'She's an absolute legend.'

I smiled all the way home.



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