Op-Ed: Musings on our magnificent triviality

Hammond: 'Each time I look at a racehorse it engages my mind' | Emma Berry


For the first time in my memory, maybe since the war, there is a complete shutdown of racing in France, Ireland and the UK. It goes without saying that we in racing live in our own little bubble and the effects of the coronavirus are considerably more dramatic on other areas of society. We are in unchartered territory however. So, for the moment, all we can do is to hunker down and ride out the storm.

'Our magnificent triviality' was the description used by the much missed Hugh McIlvanney, Scotland's greatest sports journalist, to describe our occupation/passion of horseracing. He himself said he nicked the phrase from Phil Bull, another giant in his own domain, the founder of Timeform which became the bible of anyone following British racing in a serious fashion. It's an apt phrase maybe but our sport can also be seen as a wonderful and fascinating way of spending some time during these brief few years that we individually spend on earth.

Racing is never bland; it always touches our senses. We never know what we are about to receive, elation or disappointment, but it is not a game of total chance either. Each race is a game of three-dimensional chess played out not only by the players on the field but also by the owners, trainers and even breeders too. Every race has a result with a knock-on effect to all involved and while we all have our individual views and opinions, ultimately we are dealing with nature and one of nature's finest creations at that. Personally, each time I look at a racehorse it engages my mind.

I was fortunate to spend much of my childhood and adolescence in Ireland, the home of the horse. Anyone with more than ten square metres behind their house had a horse. A hunter, a showjumper, a pony or a potential racehorse. Ireland is the largest breeder of thoroughbred horses in Europe with a human population of only five million. In Ireland racehorses are bred in the bone.

I began riding out for Jim Dreaper in my school holidays aged 14, weighing in at a similar mass to a large family dog! Very small, I grew late. It was, at the time, one of the best  'jumping' stables in Ireland. Only steeplechasers and hurdlers, no Flat horses. Jim had just taken over from his legendary father, Tom, a man of few words and dry wit—he was a stockman as much as trainer.

It was a stable bathed in history. Often the horses would not be broken in until the end of their four-year-old season, not getting to their best until they were seven or eight. Yes, it was a wait, but year after year for a couple of decades or more those champions, Ten Up, Brown Lad, Lough Inagh et al, rolled off the production line. The sugar was indeed found in the bottom of the cup.

It was where the mighty Arkle, universally acknowledged as the best steeplechaser ever to put his head through a bridle, had been trained only a few years earlier. A winner of three Gold Cups, this was an animal who gave 16lbs to the second-best horse in training, Mill House—a champion in his own right—and still beat him.

The 'lads' (work riders) had, at a guess, an average age of 45. Most had been there all of their working lives. Everyone rode out wearing only cloth caps, helmets were donned only for schooling over fences. A different era, most went to work on bikes, few owned cars but the warmth and banter of morning work was theatre and I felt part of the play. To me, a young Brit, these cheerful, humorous, Irish horsemen, big-hearted if small in stature, were my idols. They were kind and they minded me, as riding those massive, raw-boned, magnificent steeplechasers I was a pea on a drum who spent most of his time 'hanging off one side', as the saying went. As, totally out of control, I went flying past the horse in front the cry would go out 'if you can't hold him, pull him up'! It took me a while to get the joke.

That was how I spent eight years of school and university holidays. They were special times, riding memorable horses, working with memorable people.

It might seem trite to be writing and reminiscing about our little sport at a time when we appear to be having the perfect storm of a world health crisis and global economic meltdown, but maybe at such times it is important to be thankful for what gives us pleasure in life too. Right now, rightly so, racing is stopped here but we miss it. There is still the great pleasure of seeing the horses at exercise but…no racing, no horses. It is the Thoroughbred's reason to be.

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