Last Sunday my son returned from his regular shift at the local care home in a subdued mood. The stark realities of old age are a sobering experience, especially for a sixteen year old with his exuberant, promising, sparkling life ahead of him. His regular Scrabble partner, Joan, did not want to play that morning. She was crying as she watched the Remebrance service on the TV, not for the bereavement of anyone in particular, but for the accumulated loss of too many good men and women – too many sons and daughters who never came home to their families.
Some witty friends have suggested my son voluntarily gets out of bed on his only possible morning for a lie-in in order to get away from the insanity at the other care home that is our house, but actually he is (behind the monosyllabic mask of adolescence) a remarkable young man, caring enough to pursue a medical career at a time when there are many reasons not to, and committed enough to see through whatever he puts his mind to with utter dedication and assurance.
His great-grandfather, who died in the Second World War and never got to see his own daughter let alone the generations that followed, would have been utterly proud of this fine embodiment of the freedoms that were fought for. I know I am.
On a day of such reflection and emotion it seemed somehow trite to turn on the racing, but I just about justified it to myself as expressing our hard-won democratic right to waste a few hours in a frivolous pastime of my own choosing. To describe this sport as a rollercoaster of emotion would be both a vast understatement given my history with it, and a gross overstatement given the context of the day. However, Sunday gave us another prime example of the ability of horse racing to thrill and sadden, touch and sicken within the space of a few hours.
First the news, simultaneously deflating and uplifting, that Sprinter Sacre had been retired. Some minor heat in a leg after working was enough for trainer Nicky Henderson to finally call it a day on the exquisitely precarious juggling act of trying to keep a national treasure both performing and safe. I was lucky enough to interview Nicky last year, and it would be nigh on impossible to nominate someone who cares more for their charges.
Here was an equine superstar so dominant in his sphere that he was described in his pomp as unbeatable, “a machine”. And here was a horse that earned a special place in our hearts not because of that dominance but because of his fragility and fallibility – a defibrillating heart from which we thought he could not return, a year on the sidelines, and a season of frustration and defeat. It seemed that time had taken its inevitable toll and stolen some of the greatness away. That, of course, was before the fairytale of last season unfolded.
The trainer spoke in the Cheltenham parade ring as his star turn received warm and lasting applause from the Prestbury Park congregation – the affection was obvious, and the relief palpable. Sprinter Sacre looked as well as ever, athletic and graceful as he took a turn in front of the stands to the generous reception of his adoring fans. I just hope he doesn’t miss the day job too much, and finds some happiness in his own equine care home.
And then just minutes later we were onto the Schloer Chase, the race won by Sprinter Sacre last season that rekindled the impossible dream of regaining his Champion Chase crown. Simonsig, another long-term patient nursed back to rude health by the mercurial patience of Nicky Henderson, was sent off a well-backed 3/1 shot.
He too looked steaming fit to the point of over-exuberance and hardly noticed the first fence that he steam-rollered over. He was arsing about like a barely-containable cage fighter and I wondered whether Barry Gerraghty should pull him up (if indeed that were possible), but the stewards and punters would have taken a dim view – you can’t pull up a horse after one fence for being too well.
The second fence was dismissed with a similar level of scant regard. Still he was throwing his head around and wanting to win the two-mile chase in the next ten seconds. Then the third fence, in front of the stands, where he fell and broke a leg and had to be put down. Another loved one that will not return home, and the warm tears of relief were quickly replaced with the cold tears of sadness once more.
So after Vautour last week, a private demise in a faraway field, we add another to the roll call of horses we have loved and lost. Simonsig will not be afforded the opportunity to miss the sport like his stable mate Sprinter Sacre. His death seems somehow more resonant, not because it was played out in the glare of the TV cameras, but because it comes so close to the previous one. Simonsig may never have been as great as Sprinter Sacre, but I would have loved to have seen him give it a go.
So on a day of rueful celebration for the retirement of one of the greatest racehorses of all time, let us not forgot the abject heartbreak of what followed, just as we must never forget the ultimate sacrifice of all those that allow us to lead our lives how we choose – for old men to watch horse racing, and for young men to be doctors.